Thursday, May 11, 2023

Commentary: Turncoat

This is commentary for "Turncoat."

“Turncoat” is my love letter to the X-Wing and Wraith Squadron series. Their spiritual successor in current canon is Alphabet Squadron. The story opens with a “dramatis personae,” which I distinctly recall showing up in several Star Wars EU novels.

It’s helpful in stories with a large cast, which a fighter squadron would always have. Bronze Squadron includes twelve members with numbered designations. While writing it, I kept the names and designations in a list at the bottom of my Word document. This was helpful to me, so I added the dramatis personae section at the top to help familiarize readers with the characters.

This is the longest entry of my ROTJ stories.

The main character is Sevra Brack, an Imperial TIE pilot who’s working undercover as a spy and embedded within a Rebel fighter squadron. An Imperial loyalist, she’ll serve the cause until the bitter end. She loathes the Rebels, their janky starfighters, and their pilots.

Pretty much everything about the Rebel Alliance annoys her. She misses the structure and order the Empire brought to her life. She misses being able to treat aliens as second-class citizens. She misses her sweet, sweet TIE Interceptor. She doesn’t understand why the Rebels allow pilots to fly antiquated, inferior starfighters.

The Rebels’ best fighters are X-Wings and A-Wings. The Y-Wings are slow but powerful. A Wookiee pilot flies a beat-up ARC-170, an X-Wing precursor first glimpsed in the prequel trilogy.

The alien wingmen are typical Star Wars species, no real deep cuts. We’ve got a Duros, a Bith, a Twi’lek, and the aforementioned Wookiee. 

One of the pilots is Hapan—meaning he’s from Hapes, a planet first mentioned in The Courtship of Princess Leia, an absolutely wild EU book featuring a matriarchal society and a romantic suitor named Isolder who attempts to woo Leia, much to Han’s chagrin. The Hapan pilot’s demeanor is meant to be over-the-top and kind of in the style of Chris Hemsworth’s Thor. In the Legends EU, Hapans were famously isolationist, making Aldar's inclusion a bit of a stretch.

A couple other planets mentioned include Corellia and Chandrila, both important worlds in the Star Wars universe. Corellia also got a mention in “Terror Bears.”

The message exchanges between Sevra and her Imperial superiors did not appear in the original version of the story. I wanted her to have some interaction to show she was working as a spy. Sending coded messages to report on her squadron’s activities ended up being the solution.

Sevra would gladly take out Mon Mothma if given the order. You can tell she’d really like to destroy the shuttle. However, she’s under orders to keep “MM” safe.

Home One is the ship Admiral Ackbar helms in Return of the Jedi. The Mon Cal cruiser is the Rebel Alliance’s flagship. 

Would a normal Imperial know anything about Eadu, a planet seen in Rogue One? Maybe. Maybe not. At the very least, Sevra is a spy and it’s one of the mountainous planets I could think of that we see onscreen.

Sevra does seem confused by certain aspects of her orders. The Empire has been trying to kill Mothma for a while, yet she’s not ordered to take her out. And what’s this about a “final offensive?”

She is forming a begrudging respect for the Rebels, however. That becomes more and more apparent throughout the story. She still prefers her TIE Interceptor, though.

As for her thoughts on other species? She still thinks of Wookiees as “things” and has zero interest in getting to know her fellow pilots, especially the non-human ones. She really is the Empire’s best.

As in “Terror Bears,” I enjoyed giving some of the pilots nicknames. Wookiees always have long names, so shorthand is almost always a requirement. Other nicknames include “Roo” and “Goalie,” although those names aren’t nearly as long.

The group scene with the pilots is meant to show their sense of camaraderie. Sevra is playing a role here, but she’s doing it well. We get an idea of the pilots’ personalities. It’s most important to establish Roo and Nova, as they play a big role in what’s to come and have a personal impact on Sevra. To a lesser extent, we also need some insight into Aldar and Pollux.

I love a good mission briefing scene or a heist setup. Each of the original trilogy movies has a scene like this: in Star Wars, it’s the attack on the first Death Star; in The Empire Strikes Back, it’s the defense and evacuation of Hoth; in Return of the Jedi, it’s the final offensive. Here, we learn about the mission parameters.

I was always fascinated by Imperial interdictors, a class of ship capable of preventing other vessels from jumping to lightspeed. They’ve never played a role in a Star Wars movie that I can recall, although they appeared in expanded universe material and the Star Wars Sourcebook.

The ship they’re trying to protect is a Skipray Blastboat. It’s a small vessel that packs a decent punch for its size. My hazy memory tells me Talon Karrde’s mercenaries used Skiprays in Heir to the Empire. We later learn the pilot’s codename is Scimitar. I’ll come back to that.

The idea that the Rebels are attacking an interdictor head-on without a capital ship is insane, but Bronze Squadron is adept at hit-and-fade missions. The operation, honestly, does strain credulity. On the other hand, this is a critical mission with a tight timeline and with no other ships nearby, Bronze Squadron has no other choice.

The briefing provides Sevra with information about one of her key objectives. Whether she meant to or not, Bronze Leader reveals the Rebel fleet is gathering near Sullust. She is, of course, eager to pass this information along to her superiors. However, it seems they already knew, based on their reply. The Empire’s reluctance to guarantee her safety really nags at her.

The brief scene of Sevra getting into her X-Wing serves a couple purposes. First, it implies there’s some bond between her and Nova, although she doesn’t reciprocate. She shows her animosity toward non-humans with her flippant response to his genuine concern for her. She also derides her astromech for insisting people call it “Fate.”

When I decided to make a Wookiee one of the pilots, I realized someone would have to translate his radio transmissions for him. I defaulted to having the pilots’ astromechs take care of it.

The Rebels have early success in their mission by surprising the interdictor. Pollux gets too cocky, however, and ends up getting blown to bits, despite the warnings of Aldar and Bronze Leader.

Giving the “Flying Daggers” a yellow stripe was inspired by the First Order’s red-accented fighters from the sequel trilogy. Also, the squadron’s nickname is totally on the nose, as TIE Interceptors pretty much look like flying daggers thanks to their unique pointed, angled wings.

At one point, I had the Flying Daggers pegged as Sevra’s old unit. The idea didn’t complicate the story, but it also didn’t add much to it, so I scrapped it.

Ah, Bronze Eleven and Bronze Twelve. Although it doesn’t become a running joke, exactly, the idea here is that pilots get killed or transferred so often that it’s not worth getting to know their names. Sevra also implies she may have been responsible for some ship “malfunctions” that exacerbated the problem.

From a practical standpoint, I already had ten named characters with backgrounds in the story. I didn’t want to add additional characters for the readers to track. My solution was to keep the characters unnamed and provide only their designations.

While Roo and Nova antagonize each other, they’re good pilots and friends. Consider it a friendly rivalry between the two.

At roughly the midpoint of the story, Sevra acknowledges that Nova’s disappointment in her hurts. She’s not turned away from the Empire yet—that comes much later—but she’s starting to think about things a little differently.

On a few occasions in the story, the Rebels have a chance to finish the job or make their own escape. But instead of being the cold, efficient killers of the Imperial Navy, they risk their lives to save their wingmen. Even though Sevra failed to save Nova minutes ago, he’s more than willing to save her.

Sevra doesn’t understand it because the idea is antithetical to Imperial ideology.

She eventually chooses self-preservation and momentarily reflects on the challenges of being a spy. Her role requires her to kill Imperial pilots. There is a disconnect here, though. While she doesn’t like killing other Imperials, she lacks the self-awareness to understand that the Empire is willing to sacrifice its personnel in exchange for intel. The acquisition of information is more important than the people who serve the Empire. While she understands this on the surface, it doesn’t sink in on a deeper level.

A quick refresher on starfighter speeds. Y-Wings are slow. X-Wings are faster. A-Wings are the fastest in the Rebel fleet. TIE Interceptors can outrun them all. Gil’s ancient ARC-170 is slower than the Y-Wings, although the Wook gets plenty out of it.

While providing cover for the Y-Wings, Roo’s engines take a direct hit and disable his ship. Nova’s first instinct is to save him, much to Sevra’s chagrin and disbelief. It takes an impassioned appeal from Roo himself to remind Nova that they must complete their mission; otherwise the Empire will continue to oppress the galaxy.

This, Sevra understands. The mission must take precedence. She applauds Roo for having some common sense, something she feels is sorely lacking among the Rebels. She does, however, take exception to the pilots’ “bro-tastic” exchange.

Once the gravity well projectors are disabled, we hear from Scimitar. That’s the codename of Lort Br’lya, the spymaster from “Many Bothans Lived.” After securing the Death Star II plans, he needs help getting them into the Rebellion’s hands. None of the pilots know the nature of the intel in Br’lya’s possession; they’re only aware it’s important.

With the hyperspace lanes open, the Rebels are free to make the jump to lightspeed. They disappear off Sevra’s scopes. She plans to stay behind so she can rejoin the Imperials, but Bronze Leader won’t leave until everyone else is safe.

Sevra feigns a hyperdrive malfunction, eliciting a furious protest from her droid, Fate. She activates her coded transmission and is stunned when the Imperials, instead of helping her, attack her ship. She had a special message guaranteeing her safety.

Bronze Leader, Berix, tries in vain to save Sevra, going out in spectacular fashion. Sevra’s as confused as she’s ever been as the TIEs converge on her. Why are they trying to kill her?

Basically, the Empire got what it needed out of her. With the intel she provided received and the Rebels’ final offensive coming soon, she no longer has value as a spy. She’s an expendable asset.

But while the Empire she loved tried to kill her, two Rebel pilots risked their lives to save her. Bronze Leader died while lowkey MVP Gil blasted her out of a jam and saved her skin. This all forces Sevra to reassess everything, especially when her handlers stop responding to her messages.

She’s still in denial aboard Home One until she takes a good look at the members of Bronze Squadron. As they reflect on their losses, she reflects on everything they’ve sacrificed. To paraphrase the good doctor, her small heart grew three sizes that day.

She’s now ready to leave Sevra Brack behind and embrace life as Kail Tremal, Rebel pilot.