This is a work of fan fiction. No monetary profit has been gained from its production and no copyright infringement is intended. The Star Wars characters and events used in this fan fiction are the property of George Lucas. Mike Stackpole, Aaron Allston, and Timothy Zahn invented or shaped most of the characters with whom I'm playing, so my special thanks go to them for writing such great novels and comics. If you would like to republish the fanfic, please ask me. Any comments are very welcome at cailyn@xwpilots.de.

A Challenge

The young human commander looked past his dim reflection on the large viewscreen to the scenery enfolding before him. The hangar was huge and strangely decorated, a mixture of Chiss and local design as far as he could tell. It was impressive, and surely it would have been interesting to study its strange decorations in detail, but his concentration rested solely on the twelve clawcraft that had entered the hangar minutes before. As often as he'd seen such a display, the young man still marveled at the beauty of the design and the skill of the pilots who maneuvered their fighters into their holding positions with long-practiced ease.

He watched in patience as the first pilots began to emerge from their craft and climb down to the hangar floor, their blue skin and red eyes a strange contrast to their plain black jumpsuits. Almost all of the pilots were Chiss; the fleetarm to which Spike Squadron belonged consisted almost exclusively of Chiss warriors. A decision the commander wasn't happy with, but which he had to accept.

Lately more and more Chiss had joined their forces, a welcome addition to their military, but also a challenge. Unlike the Chiss who had been loyal to Grand Admiral Thrawn since his return to the Unknown Regions – some of them even before – and those who had joined during the first fifteen years in which the "Empire of the Hand" had been built and expanded, these new Chiss recruits came with the unofficial blessing of their families and their society. There still existed no official diplomatic relationship between the Empire and the Chiss – though recent events looked promising as to reaching this goal soon -- but the way the Chiss regarded Thrawn's legacy had changed noticeably over the last few years.

Maybe they'd finally realized that there were indeed dangers lurking that could destroy them, or perhaps their reasons were related to their complicated internal politics, but for several years now most of the Chiss ruling families had begun to send their more adventurous sons and daughters to the "Empire of the Hand" for military education. Unlike the Chiss before them, for whom the way back to Chiss society had been blocked forever, these young Chiss were supposed to return after a few years of military training to continue their careers within their native society.

The young commander welcomed this development, but he was also aware of the problems it raised. Almost all Chiss were convinced of their race's superiority, a character trait that wasn't received well by many of the humans and members of other alien species in the Empire's military. The fact that most of the older humans had grown up in Palpatine's Empire, which had taught human superiority and discriminated against all other races, didn't make things exactly easier, to say the least. He smiled tightly. The last years had taught him a lot about xenophobia – a valuable lesson, as his oldest sister had pointed out to him recently, and rightfully so, but one that had not always been easy.

He returned his attention to the hangar. Spike Squadron's pilots had gathered underneath their clawcraft, standing at attention and listening intently to their commanding officer. Someone not familiar with the Chiss wouldn't have been able to tell if their commander was congratulating them on their performance or reprimanding them for it, so unemotional were the expressions on their faces, but the young commander had been on the receiving end of a dressing down often enough to recognize it immediately for what it was. His stomach clenched in sympathy for the pilots. Chiss officers were strict disciplinarians, and Colonel Oliba was well known to be one of the strictest among them. Whatever she had in stock for her pilots, it sure would be nasty.

Obviously finished with her reprimand, the colonel crisply turned around and headed towards the exit, curtly gesturing the sole human among her pilots to follow her. The major obeyed without hesitation, falling in step beside his commanding officer – not an easy task considering that the colonel was a head taller than the young human – and listening intently to her words while the colonel hacked commands into a datapad.

The commander left his observation post and headed down to the hangar level. He quickly strode towards the hallway that let away from the hangar in order to intercept the two Spike Squadron pilots. When he shouldered his way past the technicians that hurried to the hangar to tend to the newly arrived fighters, he caught the last words of the one-sided conversation.

"Get these new simulation scenarios running," the colonel handed the datapad to the man, "and then rest. Nash'ra protocol will be effective from 0600 hours tomorrow morning local time." The major bowed, then immediately turned around to head down a different hallway, intently studying the contents of the datapad.

His way let him directly past the commander who was now standing near the hallway crossing, but he was too absorbed in his task to notice his surroundings. With a slight smile playing around his lips the commander stepped forward, right into the way of the younger man. With most other people a crash would have been inevitable, but the young man's superior peripheral vision and pilot reflexes kicked in quickly. A fast evasive maneuver, followed by a sudden stop, brought him face to face with the commander, only centimeters apart, but without a collision. Schooled by years spent among the Chiss, the major managed to keep surprise from showing on his face as he looked at his superior officer. "My apologies, Commander." He stepped back, bowed deeply to underline his words, then remained standing stock-still at attention.

The commander stared at the man before him, not quite sure whether he should be amused or annoyed by this behavior. The young man's features were blank, and he stared right through the higher-ranking officer to an invisible spot at the wall behind him. Uncertain what to make of it, the commander didn't address him immediately, but took some time to regard the man – boy – before him more closely.

Boy. He smiled inwardly, but took care that the emotion didn't show on his face, sure that the other wouldn't take that notion very well. Technically, with his fifteen standard years, the major was still an adolescent, by human standards at least. Not that the commander was that much older, but well, he +was+ older, and one's little brother probably forever remained just that, a little brother. Even though he had grown up quite a bit since the last time he'd seen him, and his shoulders had become broader. But Jag's face belied his age, no matter how much he wished it didn't. And in Chak Fel's opinion his brother's scar did more to emphasize this fact than to hide it.

For a moment his thoughts wandered back to the past, to his mother's lifeday two years ago, when she had first seen Jag's scar. She had been shaken to the bones, a reaction that had been almost as alien to Chak as it has been to Jag, but looking back, Chak began to understand what had terrified his mother. It wasn't the scar itself, a superficial mark that, even though it had become uncommon due to better bacta supply, was not out of the ordinary and neither life-threatening nor dangerous. What the scar was a symbol for had scared his mother. Maturity that had come fast and early. Far too early for their mother, who had grown up in a human society, to accept. Jag had stopped being a child and had become a soldier. And very distant. His younger brother had always been more serious and less emotional than Chak, but since he'd returned from the academy, he was awfully stiff and distant, even towards his family. 'Chiss behavior' Wyn had called it once, and she had been punished for it as their parents had considered the remark being derogatory towards the Chiss people, but Chak silently agreed with his youngest sister. The years spent solely among Chiss had indeed changed Jag.

The thought brought Chak back to the situation at hand. His brother still stood at attention, patiently waiting for a reaction from the higher-ranking officer. He briefly wondered how long he could make Jag wait, but there was no question that Jag's patience would last a lot longer than his own. He studied their surroundings. The adjacent hallways were crowded, and there were several Chiss pilots among the soldiers and personnel. Chak wasn't sure if they were members of Spike Squadron, but nevertheless he quickly discarded the idea of simply hugging his brother, just to get an emotional reaction, and settled for the by-the-book-approach instead.

"I would like to talk with you, Major." Without waiting for an answer Chak turned around and strode down the hallway, sure that his brother would follow. Jag fell in step beside and a little behind, as was prudent for a junior officer. "I overheard the end of your conversation with Colonel Oliba. I was surprised to learn that she set Nash'ra protocol into effect. What did you do to deserve such harsh punishment?"

"Our current performance isn't up to the standards she expects, sir. And she observed that we don't work hard enough to overcome our failures." Jag's voice didn't betray any opinion he might have on that matter, and Chak decided not to inquire further. Oliba was known to be +very+ demanding.

"For how long will it be effective?"

"Six local days." The answer caused Chak to wince. Nash'ra protocol meant simulation of battle stress; long hours in the simulators followed by extensive work-outs and unarmed combat training, with little food and almost no sleep. He'd once lived through one of it for four standard days, when some of his squadron's actions had irritated a Chiss general, and it wasn't an experience he'd want to repeat anytime soon. Preferably never. And six local days were almost eight standard days, if he recalled the figures correctly.

"I'm sorry." He wholeheartedly meant it.

Apparently it had shown in his voice. His brother dropped his carefully schooled demeanor for a moment and shrugged. "It will improve our performance. It is a very useful instrument if used sparsely." He turned to face his brother and smiled wryly. "We'll survive it."

"Do you have any experience with Nash'ra yet, Jag?" Chak decided to use the change in the younger man's behavior to drop the military address. He'd come to talk with his brother, not Spike Squadron's XO, after all.

"Only two days, which is really no experience at all. Nowadays two days without sleep are the rule rather than the exception."

"If you'll listen to my advice: try to take it easy. Save your energy. You'll badly need it towards the end. Perform well, but don't try to set new records. This is about endurance, not brilliance."

Jag nodded solemnly. "I'll take it into consideration."

Chak just hoped he would. His brother had always been competitive, and living solely among Chiss had strengthened that trait. For years now he'd had to prove himself, to his peers and to his superiors alike, had to compete against people who were taller and stronger. He had gained their respect eventually, as far as Chak could tell, and in the process he'd become a great strategist and a superior pilot, but that had come with a price.

And if he was honest with himself, it was a price that Chak wasn't willing to pay. He'd trained among Chiss, and he'd done well against them, but he'd also gotten his share of Chiss' arrogance. He was glad that now he served in a human-dominated unit of the fleet. Not that he disliked aliens, or Chiss in particular, there were members of several different species – including Chiss–– among his hand-picked pilots, and he valued all of them as soldiers and as persons. But being the only human in an all-Chiss fleetarm was a different thing entirely. Chak didn't mind to work hard to gain the respect of others, but having to fight for it all the time, against prejudices so high and so old that they were hard to overcome, was something he didn't need. Didn't want. Unlike Jag, he'd chosen the easy way, and he knew it. Cherith's words came back to him again. What if there was no human-dominated part of the fleet? What if he was the sole member of an alien race among a majority that looked down on him and his species? Whenever he thought about it, he began to understand why there had been a rebellion against Palpatine's Empire.

He regarded his younger brother, who was still walking silently beside him, for a moment. "Why did you apply for Spike Squadron, Jag?"

His brother looked at him surprised, obviously puzzled by this seemingly out-of-the-blue question. "Because Colonel Oliba is a superior instructor. A very good pilot, too, but her real strength is her ability to train people, to bring out the best in everyone."

"And it doesn't bother you that all other pilots are Chiss?"

"No, of course not." Chak thought that there was a hint of anger in Jag's voice – not unjustified considering the question – but then for the second time a wry smile tucked at the corners of his brother's mouth. "I know why you ask, and I won't deny that it is hard sometimes, Chak. Especially back at the academy. It took two years before the first of my Chiss peers addressed me by rank, before I was accepted. And in the squadron it started all over again. But Chiss acknowledge your skills, even if you are only human. It may seem so sometimes, but they are not unfair. If you exceed their expectations, they will respect you. It isn't easy, but it is a great chance to prove yourself, to push your limits."

Chak sighed. "Well, I'm certain that it is a challenge. And I admire you for willingly accepting this challenge, Jag. I wouldn't be up to it."

"Nonsense." This was probably the most emotional reply Chak had gotten from his brother for years, and he smiled. Getting Jag to loosen up a bit was a difficult task. "You are a superior pilot, Chak, and a superior commander, too. Better than I. You would have no problems at all to stand your ground in Spike Squadron. Colonel Oliba would reprimand you regularly for your unorthodox tactics – and for talking too much, of course -- but in fact our talent for choosing unconventional strategies is something many Chiss secretly admire in humans. And it has gained you some reputation among them, I can assure you."

"They talk about me? To you? You're kidding me, right?" Apart from his former Chiss commanders who would certainly not say a single positive word about him, Chak doubted that many Chiss would even know of his existence. Granted, he had gained some fame by his unorthodox, but greatly successful command decisions in the battle of Rah'othas, but still….

"Sure they do." Jag smiled widely now. "And why not to me? Chiss have deep respect for family ties and values. They know that I'm very proud of you, and of my family. I don't think they would understand if it were otherwise."

Chak shrugged, not quite sure how to react. The admiration in Jag's words made him feel awkward. Jag had always looked up to him, to his older brother, and as a child it had simply seemed natural to him. Now it felt strange. He quickly changed the subject.

"Speaking of family, Mother and Wyn send their regards and asked me to remind you that you should try to get a few days of leave to attend to Mother's lifeday this year. Father even offered to intervene if necessary."

Jag raised his eyebrows. "Father suggested ordering me home for private reasons?"

"Nothing quite so drastic, I guess. He'd probably just put in a good word for you if your commander refuses. Unless your presence with the squadron is absolutely necessary, of course." They all were officers, and duty always came first. Their father had never used his rank to favor any of his children – if anything, he had been more demanding towards them – and the fact that he'd suggested at all to use his influence showed how desperately their mother wished for a family gathering. Their respective duties as officers in the Empire's military didn't allow his father, Cherith, Jag, Davin, and Chak himself much leave, so usually the days around Syal Fel's lifeday were the only time the family spent together. And the last two years not even that had been possible. "Mother really hopes that this time all of us can attend."

"I'll put in a request for leave as soon as possible. It's still almost two months, so I cannot promise anything, but I'll try." Jag sighed. "I really would like to spend some time at home again, but the current situation is so unstable that no one can yet predict what will happen in the upcoming months." His look became quizzical. "What did you do back home?"

"Reporting about a special diplomatic mission I was sent to. A very interesting one." Chak grinned. "Involving Jedi."

"Jedi?" Jag stared at him incredulously. "You're kidding me, right?"

"Nope. Luke Skywalker and Mara Jade, and on our side for a change." He sighed. "Actually, that mission is what I'd planned to tell you about. I'd thought we might have a drink or two tonight and chat a little, just like brothers ought to do from time to time. But Nash'ra ruined these plans." Chak tried to keep disappointment from his voice. He really longed to talk with his brother, but with six days of Nash'ra protocol ahead, he didn't want to keep him from resting. Jag would need all his strength in the upcoming week.

"No, it doesn't. I need to take care of these simulation scenarios first," Jag waved the datapad he still held in his hand, "but that'll only take about two hours. After that, I'm all yours."

"But you need to sleep, Jag. Don't underestimate Nash'ra."

"I don't," Jag assured him. "But you can't store sleep for upcoming worse times. Sleeping a lot longer than usual will only make me tired. It's best to keep my sleep rhythm. Besides, I can't wait to hear about your mission and the Jedi." He grinned. "Though I would prefer some non-alcoholic drinks. I still remember the last time we shared some brandy all too well."

"Oh yes. Left a lasting impression, didn't it?" As boys, they had sneaked into their father's office and half emptied a bottle of Whyren's Reserve, and Chak still remembered his father's harsh words and his punishment very well. But the worst had been to see his brother sick from the effects of the alcohol and to know that he as the older sibling – and the one who had had the idea -- was responsible for it. Not that Jag had tried to hide behind his brother. He had taken his share of the blame, and both had been punished equally severe. But the younger boy's body had had much more trouble to cope with the alcohol than Chak's, and on top of their punishment, Jag had felt awfully sick for two days. "Well, I'm sure that the local canteen offers non-alcoholic beverages, as well." He consulted his chrono. "So we'll meet there at 1700 hours local time?" Chak still wasn't convinced that it was a wise choice to keep Jag from resting, but he was too eager to talk with his brother to argue the matter.

"Okay. See you then." After a brief look around to orient himself, Jag bowed slightly to his brother and strode down the corridor back towards the hangar.

(c) Petra Genske, December 2012

Back to Top