Brilliant green slices through the air, burdened with a high-pitched scream.
Aim, fire, dodge.
Cassian moves with his breathing, falling into a familiar rhythm. Like clockwork, he exchanges fire with the advancing pirates.
Shoot, shoot, shoot. Actions transcend thought - his blaster is an extension of his arm.
Shoot, shoot, shoot. Smoke, fire, sparks. The whine of his blaster, the rush of blood in his veins.
"... I repeat, we are under attack..."
Sudden bright light fills Cassian's vision.
Dull pain shoots up his arm when his shoulder slams against a wall. The thin electrical panels rattle with the impact as he ducks into the relative safety of the maintenance corridor. A volley of blasterfire brushes past him, leaving the smell of ozone in its wake. Tucked away from the firefight, Cassian takes a moment to orient himself.
The stench of burnt fibers assaults his senses.
Alarms scream of deployed escape pods and lost engines. Feet pound against the ceiling as stragglers abovedecks scramble to safety. The ceiling tiles rattle and some give way, shattering into clouds of debris. The resulting plume shields him from the pirates.
"... pirates stormed a starliner..."
Wetting his lips, Cassian raises the comm on his wrist to his mouth.
A fizz of static is his response. Frowning, Cassian readjusts his grip on his blaster, hoping interference explains the silence and not something he can't afford to think about. Carefully, he peers back into the main hallway, the arm of his singed jacket still smouldering.
Shoulderpads. Green skin. Glistening eyes, all pupil and no iris - the Rodian's pheromones don't have a chance to grow rancid with fear before Cassian pulls the trigger. The scowling face falls out of sight with a thud. Cassian doesn't slow, moving forward relentlessly.
Thunk, thunk, thunk. Knees, torso, heart - square in the middle on a Human, one on either side for a Zabrak. Stray bolts ping against blackened walls. His attackers fall before they know what hit them. Thunk, thunk, thunk.
An anti-fire sprinkler sputters to life, disrupting the monotony of battle. The water it spits out sizzles when it hits the smoke saturating his path. Slowly, a clear view parts before him.
For the first time Cassian can remember, the hallway is comparatively silent - until a voice cuts through the quiet.
He clamps his free hand over his ear.
"Melshi?" His heart threatens to squeeze his lungs. "Melshi!"
"Cap - we - on it! Jus-"
The connection crackles out, followed by a loud boom echoing from deep within the core of the luxury starliner. The world around him rattles, durasteel frame groaning with the added burden of multiple skirmishes throughout the ship. Cassian quashes down the dread clenching his gut, focus narrowing to his singular goal: the cockpit.
"...they've taken control of the ship.."
Straightforward enough, but Cassian fights off enemies on either side. Pirates on one hand, fleeing Imperials on the other. The Imps' frustration at their vacations ending abruptly is evident. His only solace is that the latter are more concerned with not soiling their clothing, and by the time he'd arrived the handful of stormtroopers on board had fallen victim to the pirates.
He bolts down the hallway, boots slamming on fractured tile. Gleaming stone shards crunch under his feet as more pirates materialize. He empties his blaster into the gut of a pink-skinned Zabrak and the breathing mask of the Kyuzo that follows. Cassian doesn't stop to dodge the resulting hiss of bitter gas, already moving to intercept the Weequay barreling towards him. Fist meets jaw, hand yanks neck - eyes are blinded by the spewing gas.
Cassian shoves their face to the ground, using the jagged edges of the broken floors to his advantage.
Bloody footprints trail him as he sprints.
"... they're using it like a detonator..."
It's times like these he wishes he had time to shuck off his jacket. His shirt sticks to his back, moving with his every breath. Exertion heats the back of his neck and the roar of his heart drowns the out the screech of klaxons and his opponent's intermittent grunts.
Grappling with the Weequay has left Cassian unprepared for the pirates rushing down the hallway.
He ducks under a volley of blaster fire -
- and carries the momentum into his feet, crushing a kneecap and then a skull. A hand snaps out - reddish purple - and he grabs it. Twists, and pulls, and a vibroblade clatters to the ground in time with a loud yowl. Cassian kicks it away, circling his leg around so heel meets flesh.
Fist meets palm; arm meets hand; a burst of red peppers Cassian's vision.
Blasterbolts shriek in pain.
Red, red, red. The Devaronian's skin; the red-hot blasterfire; spurts of blood -
Deathly blooms blossom on the Devaronian's back - they writhe in his firm grip. Cassian, who'd pulled the pirate over him as a living shield, ducks with the sagging body. The pirate behind the blaster freezes -
before they thaw, Cassian's nicked the vibroblade off the floor and given it a home in the leather of his assailant's neck.
Cassian reaches for his empty blaster to recharge it. He hesitates, fingers grasping at thin air. An eerie, muffled quiet settles over him -
in the distance, sirens and the sounds of battle.
"...it's on a direct path to our base. We cannot evacuate in time."
Static buzzes in his ears, and then:
"Melshi?" He's straining to hear, to speak. Cassian realizes he's frantically half-shouting.
He's warned by the shrill roar. Cassian's back hits the wall - the volley of blasterfire whizzes past him. A half-second later he leaps for the shooter. They crash to the ground in a tangle of limbs, and he's stuck in the muscular man's grip.
Cassian's heart hammers and the pirate grins wickedly, flicking open a switchblade. The knife plunges to his throat - but he's trapped the other man's arm. The knife swings wildly, scratching up the smooth stone floors around Cassian's head as they struggle.
Stone screeches under the blade. Cassian twists the pirate's arm.
The blade plunges into his spine.
Cassian would be glad to leave it at that but when his boots hit the ground the pirate roars again, lunging for his ankles. His feet meet the hard angles of the pirate's face, shattering cartilage and spilling bright green fluid. Anger fuels the man's rampage - he leaps up, ready to throttle Cassian; to crush his neck -
but with the fluidity of a Karuki dancer Cassian's slid behind the other man. Their muscles are as wide as he is, but with a lifetime of being the smaller fighter, Cassian knows how to leverage his build.
His fingers brush against the pirate's collar, then lace together around his pulse.
Cassian drops to his knees.
"You - there?"
The pirate flips, rolling over Cassian's back. An audible, hair-raising crack follows the smash of impact, and Cassian doesn't need to look at the carnage twice.
"Andor? Are you alright?"
He hastily raises the wrist comm to his mouth, still panting.
"Affirmative," Cassian replies between gasps. "What - what happened?"
"Small hiccup. We're all safe." Exhaustion strains Melshi's voice, but Cassian doesn't deny himself the small reprieve of a sigh of relief.
"Good. And the plan?"
"We're on it. Signing off."
"Understood. Signing off."
The call cuts off, leaving Cassian alone with bloodstained boots and a trail of destruction behind him. Ahead lies his goal. Just past this turn is the entrance to the cockpit, the layout of the M-class starliner still fresh in his mind.
He treads slowly, quietly, catching his breath.
Till now he'd felt detached from the fight, as usual, but with the recent close call, adrenaline suddenly surges through his veins. His blaster's at full charge now, so as he walks his plan coalesces in his mind.
Her voice, still fresh in his memory, ends the distress call:
"Fulcrum, you're our only ally. You're our only hope."
If he'd been told even a week ago that his next mission would be rescuing an Imperial luxury cruiser from pirates, Cassian might've balked.
Pirate assaults are frequent in the Maelstrom, enough that the Kuari Princess' capture wouldn't be high priority. The Outer Rim is out of both sight and mind, and rumor says the two most important dignitaries on this cruise had fallen out of the Emperor's favour. It wouldn't be a surprise if the Emperor himself had ordered the attack. Pilots careless - or foolish - enough to map a course through the sprawling green nebula wind up with scrambled nav computers and a few short seconds before chaos. The charged stardust provides a haven for pirates and Rebels alike - the descriptors finding overlap in this sector of space that Fulcrum watches over.
Well, a Fulcrum. To the universe, the disembodied voice is known to few, an enigma whispering of hope. To those that long for an answer, Fulcrum provides that and more. Supplies are exchanged for a key to freedom; those willing to lay their lives to save others will find a recruiter - Cassian - waiting at their doorstep. It is always he that approaches them first, and when a certain group of pirates had proven themselves to be more than a mere thorn in the Empire's side, Cassian had sought out their leader.
A transaction, a simple job masquerading as a test, blossomed into a precious bond. Now the Cloud Riders make up one of the largest factions of what Senator Mothma's taken to calling the Rebel Alliance. Fulcrum feeds them information and the Cloud Riders strike.
Unfortunately, not every rogue aligns themselves with their cause; and the pirates goading this ship to its untimely demise are one of many groups blessed by the Empire. The ship convulses under his feet as a dire reminder of his current situation. Though the Imperial shadow is vast, the galaxy is even larger - and thus star systems that slip through the Emperor's grasp are terrorized by crime lords such as the Hutts, corrupt monarchies, and gangs. Some, like the Night Fangs, are just a front for the Imperial terror machine.
Cassian quiets his breathing, hyperaware of the oxygen flowing through his lungs. The moments he scrapes for himself now are what will be his ally in the fight soon to follow. He pushes thoughts of the trapped Cloud Riders away, pushes back the images of the bodies strewn behind him, and exhales.
The blaster in his hands could be in rifle configuration, and the hallway he stands could lead up to a sniper's nest. The day is silent, no wind stirs up an echo, and the only thing on his mind is the final target.
With a thud, the door of the cockpit slides open, and the three eyes of a Gran peek out. Their eyestalks quiver but before it can warn the others Cassian's pulled it into a corner. If the pirate lived long enough, it may find that the butt of Cassian's blaster would leave a nasty bruise on its temple. Instead, the silencer muffles the solitary shot and Cassian hooks a foot under the falling body to keep it from slamming on the floor.
"Melshi?" he whispers into his comm. "Where's my distraction?"
"Waiting for orders."
Cassian briefly closes his eyes. The blaster in his hands could be a package of neatly tired wires threaded by tiny fingers; it could be crinkled flimsi dotted with code; ever since the age of six, though the objectives have differed the end result is always the same:
tres, dos, uno.
"Light it up," he breathes.
Cassian allows himself three seconds to gawk at the control panel. The Kuari is a luxury star cruiser, and naturally he'd never seen the inside of one, much less a cruiser as frivolously decadent as this. Clearly the designers had spent all their attention on the interior design, not mundane things such as a defense system or the ship's controls. Smooth sailing was ensured, but the only thing differentiating the so-called high end cruiser from the run down BR-23 he'd flown on one of his first missions under Cracken were the shiny controls and added baubles. His hands flit over the buttons and levers, rerouting fuel away from the damaged engines and re-pressurizing areas of the cruiser that had been exposed to the cold vacuum of space.
"Need a hand?"
Cassian keeps his eyes on the rapidly approaching moon in the viewport, and tosses the suggestion over his shoulder: "I need a copilot!"
Melshi immediately joins him at the console, plopping into his seat with an appreciative whistle. "All looks and no substance, I see. What's the plan, Cap'n?"
"I'm trying to reroute the ship away from the Mining Colony. Right now, we're effectively aboard a bomb." Cassian glares at a particularly offensive flashing yellow light that's begun to shine an angry red. The controls are slick in his grip but he can't afford distraction -
if this ship falls, all of his life's work will go down with it.
"Exciting," Melshi remarks. "So what do you want me to do?"
"Keep it afloat and away from the moon's atmosphere. We'll get dragged right in if we're not careful, and we don't have the power to get back on course if we do." He reaches over and engages the landing repulsors and fiddles with the deflector shields.
The escaping pirates have no qualms about shooting down the ship with some of their own still on board.
"We've got our work cut out for us." Melshi peers at the console readouts, frowning grimly. "Descent's slowed but this is gonna be a long ride. We aren't staying on board, are we?"
Cassian shakes his head. "We'll evacuate once we're back on route. My ship's in the docking bay and I'll head to the surface, you and the Pathfinders can return to Base One. We just need to put this ship back on course so it doesn't draw attention to the mining colony - or destroy it."
History is a convoluted creature. Its writhing tentacles dig into planets and uproot civilizations, the maw of its mouth swallows entire armies whole.
The Republic was born of a galactic desire for stability and equality. After millennia it crumbled from the inside due to the diseases known as corruption and ignorance. The sins the Republic committed - by facilitating the Outer Rim's wild growth into slavery and poverty, for one - had eventually snaked around its neck. The Separatists who rose to oppose them were fed by the same bloody money. When the Emperor dropped his mask of civility, all became clear. Whether the Separatists were a front for Palpatine's machinations, or the man just knew how to use a good opportunity, Cassian isn't certain. All he knows is that Fest was betrayed.
These thoughts linger as he's guided into a meeting with the leader of the Cloud Riders. Footsteps echo warmly on ancient stone and green hued light spills through arches thrice as tall as himself. The wind outside picks up in pace, swifly dancing through the arches and whipping the colourful fabrics and furs draped inside into a frenzy.
The Oasis mining facility carries the ghostly marks of generations of beings who found solace between its many stone walls. If Cassian had the time to let his Intelligence eyes wander over the structures built from weathered rock, he might even unearth the dark echoes of the ancient Sith Empire. The first to inhabit this tiny moon wrapped in the clutches of the Maelstrom. Instead, Cassian can only glimpse the washed-out vibrant sigils of previous gangs, now circumvented by Enfys Nest's hard work.
Pirates either have sensibility or style, but with a note of appreciation, Cassian finds the Cloud Riders have both. What for millennia may have been a dilapidated hideout for fugitives or a stronghold for a pirate empire, is now one of the Alliance's many beating hearts. Rooms that were once cells and torture chambers now store weapons and supplies - other cells are now quarters, kitchens, and even a medbay.
Cassian can't catch more than glimpses into these alternate lives but the clanging of kitchen utensils and the smack of washed fabric against smooth stone reaches his ears. The scents of jet fuel and homemade cooking tease his senses, thawing memories of years gone by.
It's rare for all of the Cloud Riders to be in one place at once. Many of the beings passing him and his guide in the hallways aren't even combatants - just refugees looking for a new home. Some will return to the galaxy at large, others will take up arms and join Enfys' leadership, but many will stay and tend to the needs of their resistance. All of them incline their heads as they pass by, and Cassian nods at the fur draped figures in return.
"In here, Captain."
Cloud Riders speak very little as a rule. Cassian has always appreciated this - there's no need for unnecessary pleasantries and double meanings with this crew. He's only unnerved by their use of armour. It's a source of physical safety and anonymity, of course, but a being's eyes are a window to their thoughts; a being's mouth betrays their intent before it even opens.
Armour is a hurdle for him, not an obstacle for an agent that can go toe to toe with the ISB.
Besides, it's not as though the Cloud Riders forsake individuality like stormtroopers, who are only identified by scratches, dents, and mannerisms - every Cloud Rider's armour is as unique as their pasts. Which is how, when Cassian steps into what appears to be the largest room on base, recognition lightens his features.
"Captain Andor of the Rebel Alliance is here."
A figure stands at a large, open viewport - a veranda, really, looking over the fortress towards the mining facility. It's clear that this room is the center of operations - the bridge of the ship, so to speak. Beings of all species pass through, but nobody dares to walk towards the secluded balcony at the front where their leader stands.
Thick fur lines their shoulders, woven red fabric hangs down their back. A hand clad in dull yellow beskar grips a staff. Distant star systems twinkle in a darkening sky, their glow blocked by the solitary silhouette. Debris from the earlier battle spreads in the upper reaches of the atmosphere, and it seems he isn't the only one looking up.
This is the Cloud Riders' crow's nest, and this is their leader.
"Thank you," Cassian says to his guide, and they bow their head before leaving, beaded braids jingling sweetly as they move. The others around them seem to obey an unspoken command and file out of the room, leaving Cassian alone to stand with his hands clasped behind his back.
Enfys turns, and Cassian realizes two things.
One: her signature six pronged helmet isn't on her head. It sits on the ledge in front of her.
Two: Enfys is a human woman around his age, with flaming red hair that spills over her collar in tight curls. An explosion of freckles dots her face like a starburst, which splits in two as she grins broadly.
Cassian can't help but smile in return as he steps forward.
"It's an honour to meet you," he says. She reaches out and clasps his outstretched hand with an iron grip. Belatedly, Cassian realizes she's shorter than him - a jarring thought for a woman so formidable.
"And you, Captain. Thank you for all you've done today - you've saved us, and we are indebted."
"I was just following orders," he replies with a thinner smile.
Enfys' smile adopts a mischievous slant. "You weren't the one who delivered them? By the time Fulcrum would've sent word to the Alliance, this entire base would've disintegrated - but I guess this just attests to his skill." Her smile quirks further at the silence that follows, and the emotions Cassian knows are churning in his eyes.
He understands, now, why she'd chosen to discard her helmet. She's rarely ever seen without it - even on base, Cassian knows only a select few are privy to Enfys' identity. Those that see her maskless don't realize that the young woman is the marauder that has proven to be a formidable foe to the Empire. The Cloud Riders have been in operation at least since Cassian joined the Alliance, which means she'd established her mythical reputation as a mere teen at the forefront of her cause.
There are benefits to facing the galaxy with a youthful face, benefits Cassian knows intimately. For someone like Enfys who purely deals in the world of crime and danger, not subterfuge, baring an innocent gaze such as hers will do her no good.
Now she's chosen to bare those vulnerabilities to him.
I took off my helmet, and now you can take off yours. She doesn't say it, doesn't even hint at a threat. Her bright smile remains warm and genuine, but Cassian feels her intent nonetheless.
"It would do no good to keep you in the dark much longer," Cassian says with a touch of bashfulness, gaze sweeping the stone floors.
Enfys presses her lips together. "Now, Captain, we all wear armour for a reason. There's no need to elaborate further - you've merely confirmed my suspicions," she replies and clasps a fist across her chest. "I promise you, I won't breathe word of this to anyone. We all have secrets, Captain, and in the age of the Empire, trust is as valuable as the coaxium we mine. I am glad you trust me, and I will honour that with my life."
Cassian's eyes flicker up to meet hers - dark brown meeting darker - and he has the nerve to grin. "That is all I ask - and I'm glad you trust me as well."
She grins back, softer this time, and steps back to the balcony, beckoning for Cassian to join her. The wind whips more violently up here, tossing her curls into the breeze, but Cassian understands why she enjoys standing here. The settlement sprawls before them, and above it, the Maelstrom pulses with vibrant energy. The air is salty yet sweet, and Cassian remembers spotting a large ocean to the west of their settlement as he flew in. His U-Wing sits on an open stretch of land, among some of the Cloud Riders' many ships.
"It's beautiful," he breathes.
She turns to regard him. "It is, isn't it? And to think what could've happened if the Night Fangs had their way. All of it cinders, only a scar where the coaxium factory is. All of our people, gone." Her gaze returns, this time staring pointedly at the factory that glimmers brightly even in the dusk that makes up the moon's day cycle.
Her voice quavers a little at the word people. Cassian sighs.
"We would've been sent two decades backwards. We would've lost a source of income, a source of supplies - and trusted allies," he adds warmly. He shifts his weight, leaning on his forearms against the railing.
"All because of a crime feud. The Night Fangs are just our competitors in the world of piracy-"
"Do you really think so?"
Enfys moves to look at him more intently this time.
"You suspect they're a front for the Empire."
"Or at least have their blessing," he says, and Enfys nods.
"I suspected that as well. But why attack an Imperial luxury cruiser filled with their people - the highest class, no less? With two Moffs on board?"
"The Moffs had been losing plenty to you and other gangs in the area, so for them it was two womprats with one stone. Besides, the more contrived it sounds, the more easy to shift blame. "
"On to us," Enfys nods slowly, lips curling into a thoughtful frown. "But you've taken care of it, I assume?"
"There's not much left on the ship except bodies - the Fangs had plundered it before taking control. Moff Vanko fled with his life. I rerouted the Princess back on its course, to Mantooine, and reconfigured the computer databank so it only has the pirates' boarding and not the diversion to Oasis."
"I should thank you for having the presence of mind to warn us. I had enough time to bring in a Pathfinders contingent to help with the rescue - they happened to be in my sector."
"And to them convey our thanks as well. You're in charge of the Relgim sector, correct? We're always swooping in and out of your jurisdiction, aren't we?"
"I watch over the Albarrio sector."
Enfys chuckles. "This is why we could never officially merge with the Alliance. All these military positions and bureaucracy. It's much easier to get on the ground," she says, tapping her staff, "and kick the Emperor in the seat of his wrinkly pants."
"I couldn't wait around for orders," she continues, "my mother used to say I was a rowdy child even then."
"Oh, my mama claimed I was the neediest, most affectionate child in the entire neighbourhood," Cassian deadpans. Enfys' amused expression and arched eyebrows elicits his self deprecating chuckle. "Everyone said I was easy to find because I'd either be clinging on to her skirts or crying because I couldn't see her."
Enfys laughs. "And look at us now," she says, before considering the implications of the statement. The world quiets around them.
They stand in silence for a while, watch the faint glow of daytime dip away into a pronounced darkness - as dark as was possible for a moon sitting in a nebula. Lights come to life, marking paths to the coaxium harvesting and processing facilities, outlining the factories that run day and night for the Rebellion. His gaze strays to Enfys' helmet resting on the wooden railing.
"It's my mother's," Enfys says. Cassian notes how quick she was to notice the focus of his attention. "In our culture, armour is a sign of pride and individuality."
"Like the Mando'a?"
"Very much so. The spires, here, that resemble horns - they signify our clan." Cassian nods appreciatively.
"It's an elegant work of art... Your mother must be proud of you."
"I dearly hope so." The brightness in Enfys' eyes has dimmed into a more sombre glow, echoing the light of the stars above. "Isn't that all we can do, anyways - hope?"
The breeze picks up, and the saltiness of the air settles on his tongue.
"I don't have anything of my mother's, just the hope she gave me: if we do something, anything, perhaps we'll help bring down the Empire. And if not - if not in our lifetime - at least we'll have the peace knowing we did all that we could."
His gaze has flitted over to a group of older children flocking around the U-Wing. The wind carries bursts of laughter, and lost in the moment, he doesn't notice Enfys reaching for his arm until she says:
"I'm sure she's proud of you as well, Captain."
He turns to look at her, holding her gaze. His smile is long gone, but its left a softness in its place. The sound of approaching footsteps registers, and he knows he must leave. Cassian straightens, stepping back from the railing.
"There's something I need to tell you," Enfys starts, moving with him. "There's, I don't know if you've heard about this, but there's been an increase in shipments of materials and slaves into your sector. If you see any Wookies on your way out, we actually just recently rescued them from one of the ships. I tried finding out what they were being sent for, but none of them had any idea."
"I've been hearing rumors of the Empire building something," Cassian starts, and Enfys nods.
"One of them started wailing and exclaiming that the end is near, but they wouldn't explain why. They were all too scared."
Cassian frowns, the expression mirrored on Enfys' face.
"I'll look into it, see if there's anything I need you to keep an eye out for." Enfys' expression softens into a more cordial smile, and Cassian recognizes the cold, determined mask that slides over her eyes.
"And I will let you know if I find anything more. It was a pleasure to meet you, finally, and we thank you for your help. May the Force guide you."
"As it guides us all," Cassian finishes the customary farewell before walking off with the guide waiting at the door.
When he turns to look over his shoulder, the helmet is back on Enfys' head, the horns framing a constellation hanging in the night sky - the Bull, bringer of the harvest and defender of farmers.
May the Force guide us all.