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Rogue Choices Release 3 (Parts 6-7)
By: Dobber

Chapter 18

They lay together, breathing heavily for a few minutes before Dia found the energy to speak. "Where Ö where did you learn to do that? she whispered to him between breaths.

"Did you like it?" he breathed back.

"Like it?" she asked with a gentle laugh, kissing him. "Like doesnít even begin to describe that."

"Good," he panted as she moved an arm to wrap around his shoulder and kiss his neck, then cheek.

They lay together for some time, their warm bodies connected as each breathed in and out. He was just starting to nod off when she spoke up. "This Rogue business is more complicated than I thought itíd be," she said.

"It is," he said, "but if we both get in, itíll be worth it."

"And if one doesnít?" she asked, propping herself up.

"Depends on who gets in," he said, taking her hand. "If you get in, thatís your choice. Iíll have to go back to Buccaneer."

"And if you get in?" she asked.

"Then Iíll do whatever we agree is best," he said, kissing it. "Even if it means not accepting the position. Iíd rather be happy with you than miserable without."

She laid her head down on his shoulder. "Thank you," she murmured.

"The message," he said a few moments later. "Have you--?"

"I have," she said, "and truth be told, thereís a few other things we need to talk about later."

"Okay," he said with a yawn, "when youíre ready."

"I need to go," she said as she kissed his cheek and pressed away from him.

"So soon?" he asked.

"Yes, silly," she said, playfully tapping him. "You only have a few hours until your flight duty. I need to hit the shower and get some sleep."

They fumbled around in the darkness for their clothes, eventually finding them.

"I," she said, taking hold of him in the darkness when she was ready, "will see you later." She brushed his hair and kissed him one last time.

"I love you," he said when she was done.

"And I, you," she said, slipping him one final kiss.Opening the door, she checked the hallway to ensure that the coast was clear before she left. It was.

He crawled back into bed and quickly fell asleep. Morning came sooner than heíd liked.

Chapter 19

"Geeze," said Nezrine as she slipped in next to Andrew in the mess hall the next morning, "what happened to you?"

Andrew turned to look at her, bags under his eyes and his hair disheveled. "Uh, rough night," he said, scratching the back of his head. "Slept through the alarm and such. No time for a shower."

"Right," she said with a nod.

Shiz joined them next, bright and chip. Quite the contrast to the Major. "Good morning," he said.

"Good morning," said Nezrine amusedly. Then she noticed it. "Whatís that on your neck?" she asked, leaning across to glance at him.

"Itís probably nothi--," he began as Nezrine grabbed his collar and gently slid it away. Sure enough, the remains of dark purple lipstick we smudged on his skin.

"Have fun last night?" she asked coyly, a grin on her face.

"Yes," said Shiz before he realized what had come out of his mouth. "I mean, no! I mean, yes, but not like that! I mean -- oh dear," he said, slapping both hands over his mouth.

Nezrine laughed as Lyn pulled up a chair next to them.

"So," asked Lyn curiously, eyes bright with delight, "howís our little love bird this morning?"

Shiz kept his hands on his mouth, not saying a word. His eyes darted back and forth between the two women.

"Itís okay, Shiz," said Nezrine, "weíre only teasing you."

"Relax, sugar," said Lyn, "you donít look half as bad as the Major here."

"I had a rough night," Andrew said as he took a sip of caf.

"Before or after Dia left your room?"

Andrew stopped and glared at her, cup raised to his mouth.

"Aha!" she exclaimed, clapping her hands together. "I knew it!"

"How did you?--"

"Lucky guess, really," Lyn said, proud of herself. "Iíve seen many men just as disheveled as you after a night of fun. And not because theyíve been drinking or sleeping poorly because they were restless."

"Yes, well," Andrew said, clearing his throat and putting his cup down, "your discretion would be Ö appreciated."

"I wonít breathe a word," Lyn said. "Though you really should invite me next time," she finished with a wink.

"We have to go," Andrew said, pushing his tray away and standing up. Grabbing Shiz by the arm, he hauled him out of his chair and began dragging him towards the door.

Lyn turned to Nezrine, a smile beaming. "I kriffing love being a woman," she said.

"I hear you, sister," Nezrine said as they clinked cups.

***

Ri exited the shower stall, towel wrapped around her body. She felt happier than usual, and not just because she finally got a shower with hot water since boarding the Vigilant. As she made her way into the changing room, her mind turned towards Shiz. For someone who had never really kissed a girl before, heíd been a fast learner last night.

It had been Ö nice.

She changed into her undergarments, then slipped her flight suit and boots on before heading towards the Mess Hall. She found Nezrine and Lyn at a table, busily eating their breakfast and talking with one another. "Good morning," she said to them.

They each exchanged glances, then locked eyes with Ri. "How was it?" they both asked at the same time.

"Whatever do you mean?" Ri replied playfully as she began picking away at her breakfast.

"You know exactly what we mean, sugar," Lyn said, leaning forward. "We want every detail."

"Whereíd you go?" Nezrine asked.

"How long?" asked Lyn.

"Was he good?" asked Nezrine.

"Are you going to see him again?" Lyn inquired.

"Okay!" Ri said, holding up a hand. "Thatís enough."

"Ri," Nezrine said, "weíre dying to know. You gotta tell us something!"

Ri shrugged. "Whatís there to tell?"

The two women opposite her laughed and fell back in their seats.

"Aw, youíre no fun," Nezrine said, waving her hand in the air dismissively.

"Guess weíll just have to let the Lieutenant Colonel know," Lyn said smugly.

Riís eyes went wide. "You wouldnít!" she said.

"Whoís to say?" Lyn said coyly. "Iím sure I could track him down easily enough. Or let Thanatos know before your flight leaves."

"Please donít," Ri moaned.

"Ballís in your court, sugar," Lyn said.

"Alright," she said tensely after a moment, "but donít you breathe a word of this to anyone."

The two women exchanged glances. "Wouldnít cross our minds," said Nezrine.

"We went back to my room and spent some time together. Thatís it."

"Sure there wasnít anything more?" Lyn asked.

"We talked for a bit," Ri said.

"With words?" Nezrine asked. "Or your lips? That dark purple lipstick on his neck tells a different story."

Ri began to turn a bright red. "If I didnít know any better," she said, pointing a fork at them, "Iíd say you both set this up, didnít you?

"Why, whatever makes you say that?" Lyn asked innocently.

"Oh no," Ri said, jabbing her fork into her eggs, "donít deny it," she finished, stuffing the food into her mouth.

"There may have been a few Ö coincidences," said Nezrine cautiously yet playful, "but it was all with good intentions."

"What you have to ask yourself," Lyn said, leaning forward and crossing both her arms on the table, "is, was it worth it?"

Ri stared at them for several moments before slumping against the table with a fist against her cheek.

"Heís not always the sharpest pilot," she said softly, then smiled. "But he is really sweet."

Lyn and Nerzrine began laughing. "Just remember, sugar," Lyn said, "if this does get serious, youíre making us bridesmaids at your wedding."

Ri sighed and shook her head. There really was no stopping these two.

***

As Ri walked to her X-wing forty-five minutes later, she overheard part of the conversation between Andrew and his flight technicians.

"... no reason for it," said Talza Jech, the chief X-wing mechanic.

"So the techs had to wipe and reinstall her primary systems?" Andrew asked.

"They did, similar to a factory reset. Personality is still the same, but the memory and other systems have been wiped and reinstalled."

"Just great," Andrew said as he began to climb aboard.

"Something wrong with your astromech?" she called, climbing up the rungs of her ladder.

"Techs had to do a full reset of her," he said to her over the noise in the hangar. "That ion missile must have really messed up her systems. Several glitching systems, and something about an unusual program file."

"Could have been a corrupted file or data bank," Ri suggested.

"Maybe," Andrew said, "but itís like meeting her again for the first time. A bit weird to be sure," he finished as his canopy began to close.

Going through her pre-flight check, she activated her comm systems.

As the hangar personnel waved their batons to lift off and depart, Ri took one last look at the work in the hangar and saw Shiz in conversation with some technicians. He waved as she made her way to the blue mag field, and she waved back. As the X-wings passed through, they formed up into a standard v-formation.

"Okay boys and girls," came Thanatosís voice over the comm system, "nothing fancy with this mission today. Weíve been asked to join Corsair in locating and securing an Imperial shuttle rumored to be in the area."

"Wonder what itís doing so far out here," Grin said.

"Classified, even to me," Thanatos said, "which means itís important. Weíll break off into pairs and help sweep the area. If you find anything, report it immediately but do not engage. We have two Y-wings from Buccaneer on standby if needed."

"Odd that they wouldnít select Spectre for this mission," Andrew said.

"Most of Spectre is away on another mission," Thanatos called, "so theyíre not available. Okay, get ready to receive hyperspace coordinates."

Seconds later the hyperspace coordinates came through to her console.

"Coordinates received," Ri said, "awaiting your orders."

"Jump to hyperspace on my mark. Three Ö two Ö one Ö mark."

The stars stretched, and they raced away to their destination.

They emerged a little more than a minute later in the vicinity of the asteroid field that they flew through yesterday. This time the nebula and planet were much farther away and looked decidedly smaller.

Up ahead, two A-wings from Corsair were patrolling the area.

"Good to see you Thanatos," buzzed Syntaxís voice over the comm. "Second and third flights have headed off to search their sectors. Weíre just about ready to jump to ours."

"Copy, Syntax. Keep the comms ready," Thanatos replied. "Weíll be in touch."

"Corsair Lead out," said Syntax as the two A-wings came to a crawl then shot into hyperspace.

"Okay team," Thanatos said, "weíll break off in pairs. Nezrine and Lyn, youíll come with me. Weíll take sectors Em-Twenty-Nine through Forty-Seven. Dobber, you and Ri cover sectors Em-Fifty-Six and circle back to meet us at Forty-Seven."

"Will do," said Andrew as he formed up beside Ri.

"Remember," Thanatos called as the three X-wings glided away, "as soon as you identify the shuttle, call it in. If you face any Imperial forces, bug out immediately."

"Got it, boss," Ri said.

***

Angling his fighter to head towards their first sector, Andrew saw a message flash across his screen.

This is my first mission, it read.

Except, it really wasnít. But rather than get into an argument with the droid, he humored her. "First mission, huh?" he asked casually. "Are you nervous?"

Yes, came the reply a few seconds later.

"Well, donít worry," he said. "Iíll keep you safe. Just watch my back and fix anything that needs repairing."

"Long-range sensors are active," Ri said over the channel. Flicking a few switches, Andrew activated his.

"Aright, Red Two," Andrew said. "Letís see what we can find."

***

It took them the better part of half an hour to sweep several of their designated sectors. They reported every several minutes with Thanatos and the Corsairs, who were equally having little success. It didnít help that the asteroid field interfered with their sensors at times, either, with large swaths of the metallic hunks of rock containing lead, zersium, and iron ore.

Andrew checked in with Ri once more.

"Looks like a whole lotta nothing," she replied. "Think we should head back?"

"Still have two more sectors," Andrew said. "I know itís slow going, but itís important to be thorough."

As the X-wings gently curved around a pair of rotating asteroids, Thanatosís voice crackled over the comm. "Red One and Two, report in."

"Negative contacts, Rogue Six. Weíre starting our second-to-last sector now."

"Corsair still reports negative contacts. Finish up and meet us at the rendezvous point."

"Copy. Red One out," he said.

This asteroid field is making me nervous, came the message from Io across his screen.

"Donít worry, Io. Iíve been through plenty of asteroid fields. Weíll be fine." They spent a good five minutes weaving through the asteroid field to inspect their sector. His sensors remained empty, and all he could see with his visual scanning was hunks of rock for miles around. Even Io couldnít detect anything.

"This could be a wild Bantha chase," he said finally. "Letís get to the last sector and--."

"Wait!" Ri called. "I think Iím picking up something. Sparks, can you boost the signal?"

"Whereabouts, Ri?" Andrew asked.

"Hold on Ö got it! A click out at point nine-five!"

"Copy," Andrew said, "lead the way. Iíll be right behind you."

The two X-wings swung left and over the asteroids in their path, heading towards their next destination. Checking his scanners, he could barely make out something. But it was there.

"Scanner says thereís something here," he said, "but Iím still getting interference. See anything?"

"I donít -- oh!" Ri called into her comm.

"What? What is it?!" Andrew called.

"Mantril Rays," she said, "above us."

Andrew looked up. Sure enough, a school of Mantril Rays was passing overhead, their bodies and movements blocking out much of the light and view from above. "Well Iíll be," he said, seeing their undersides. "Theyíre quite a sight."

"They are," Ri replied, enamoured once more with the creatures.

"Bet thereís a nest or some place they land to rest in one of the larger asteroids," Andrew said as he ducked below an asteroid in his path. Ri moved above it.

Suddenly, he saw something to his right. "Hello, what do we have here?" he said. Sure enough, to his low-right he saw the wreckage of an Imperial shuttle pressed against one of the asteroids. "Found it!" he called. "Rogue Six, this is Red One."

"Go ahead, One," called Thanatos.

"Weíve found the shuttle," he said. "Ri, send him our coordinates."

"Copy," she replied.

Io hooted sharply and flashed a message across his screen.

"Not now, Io," he said, lowering his craft to take a closer look. "Shuttle looks damaged. Must have crash landed on the asteroid for some reason."

Io hooted sharply, twice this time.

"Io, will you wait?" he asked. "Engines look offline, but I think I see someone in--."

Io gave a shrill howl as a message flashed across the screen once more.

"Io," Andrew said, annoyed, "what is the--?" he said as he read the message.

IMPERIALS!!! LOOK UP!!! it read.

Looking up just in time, he saw the last of the Mantril Rays move off, and a Gozanti-class cruiser slowly emerging from behind an asteroid. Four TIE Interceptors with red stripes along their wings began detaching from their securing tubes and howled down towards them.

"RI!" he shouted, "BREAK RIGHT!!!"

***

Twisting her craft right, Ri narrowly missed the green storm of laser fire headed for her. Sparks began howling as she made the maneuver. "Yeah, yeah, I see them!" she said, trying not to panic. Increasing her throttle, she began maneuvering around other asteroids as quickly as she could. One of the TIE Interceptors had locked on and was trying to match her movements, pouring streams of laser fire at her.

"We need to get out of here, now!" Andrew called. "Pull up, get out of the asteroid field!" The two X-wings shot upwards, doing their best to weave and maneuver around the asteroids in front of them while fire poured from behind. Most of the green laser blasts hit asteroids behind them, but that didnít stop the odd one from draining their shields slowly.

"Thanatos, Dobber," she heard him call as she raced past the Gozanti. "We ran into a Gozanti with TIEs. Squints have unidentified markings. Request assistance immediately."

"Copy!" came Thanatosís voice. "Bug out and hold on, weíll be right there!"

Ri glanced over her shoulder and saw the four Interceptors; two on her, two cutting away to intercept Andrew. "They better hurry up," she said as she jerked left to avoid some laser fire.

"Break as soon as we clear the asteroid field," Andrew spat.

A burst of quad lasers dropped Riís rear shields to zero, and she fumbled to rebalance her remaining shields. She didnít see the small debris cloud ahead of her, and plowed right through it. Small pebbles and rock chunks bounced off her hull, and one impacted her viewport enough to send a crack running up it. "Karabast!" she swore.

As the X-wings finally cleared the asteroid field, they broke apart. Pulling back on her stick, Ri sent her craft into a loop and began to drift, locking her S-foils into attack position in the process. It was a simple maneuver that Lyn had shown her, but one that would work if the pilots could line up their attack pattern quickly.

Unfortunately, one of the Interceptors pursuing her anticipated her maneuver. She saw him slide into a drift, angling his craft from her left. Opening fire, a spray of green lasers impacted her craft. Sensor warnings went off in her cockpit while Sparks howled wildly in surprise. "Ah!" she cried as the Interceptor overshot her.

"Hang on!" Andrew called. "Iíll be right there!"

Thatís when the second Gozanti dropped out of hyperspace and launched its own set of Interceptors with red markings. "Sithspit!" Andrew cursed. "Iíve got six of them on me!"

"Shields down," Ri called as she broke left and put more power to her engines. "Stabilizer has been damaged -- Sparks, can you get it?"

The droid said nothing.

"Sparks?!" she asked, quickly checking over her shoulder as she twisted and danced from the Interceptors as best she could. The droid had sparks flying from one of his compartments while blue energy surged over his dome. "Iíve lost Sparks!" she said.

She saw the two A-wings screech out of hyperspace and turn towards her.

"Cavalryís arrived!" called Syntax as he and his wingman shot towards her, lasers firing. Checking her six, she saw the two Interceptors peel away -- and Sparks eye dome began to glow red. Sheíd never seen something like that before.

"I-I think something is wrong with Sparks," she called, dumping laser energy into her shield systems.

"Damn, these guys are good!" called Corsair Five over the radio.

"Keep on Ďem!" Syntax responded.

Another pair of A-wings shot out of hyperspace, moving to help Andrew with the Interceptors furiously chasing him.

"Ri," Andrew called, "I canít shake these guys! Get to a safe distance if you can."

"O-okay!" she called, making to angle her craft away from the battle.

But her stick wouldnít move.

She tried it again, but it still wouldnít budge. "Flight systems operational," she called, "but stick not responding!"

Checking behind her, Sparksís dome stayed locked on her with its hot-red light still active. And behind him, she saw one of the Interceptors roll away from Syntax and re-engage its pursuit of her.

Checking her computer screen, she saw a message from Sparks run across it. Her eyes widened. "Sparks!" she yelled. "Let go! Let go!"

But the droid wouldnít.

"Hang on, sugar!" Lyn called as the three X-wings shot out of hyperspace in front of her, S-foils snapping open.

"Itís Sparks!" she cried, trying desperately to move the flight stick or override his control of the craft by flicking switches in her cockpit. Nothing was responding. "He wonít let go!"

"Weíre almost there!" Nezrine called.

Suddenly, her X-wing shot forward to gain momentum. Ri braced herself as the craft then twisted one-hundred-and-eighty degrees. "Sparks!" she cried, "Stop! Please, please stop!"

She saw the Interceptor screaming towards her. "Ejecting!" she called. Reaching down, she grabbed hold of the ejection lever and pulled it.

Nothing happened.

"Ejecting!!" she said as she pulled the lever again.

"Bail out, Ri!" Lyn called.

Ri pulled at the lever again and again to no avail. "STOP!" she cried fiercely, tears forming in her eyes and beginning to stream down her face as she desperately continued to pull at the lever. "SPARKS! STOP!"

A burst of green quad lasers lanced out towards her just before the Interceptor roared by.

"AHH!" she screamed in pain as fire and smoke filled her cockpit, engulfing her body. Her starfighter shattered and disintegrated around her.

***

Shiz watched from the ladder of his X-wing as the first flight of X-wings under Thanatos landed on the flight deck, the Search and Rescue U-wings from Mercy Flight slowly making its way to the landing area. Every pilot except Thanatos bailed out of their starfighter and ran towards the U-wing. Everyone, Shiz realized, except Ri.

Sliding down the ladder rungs, he pushed his way through the mechanical crew and jogged around his fighter. As his boots thumped against the deck plating, he saw the U-wing doors slide open. Lyn pushed her way past the medical team, insisting that she see her.

Nezrine and Andrew stopped short of the door. When she turned to see Shiz, he saw that her eyes were red and full of tears.

No! Shiz thought. No. No. No!

"Wake up, sugar," he heard Lyn say from inside the U-wing. "Please wake up!"

"What happened?" Shiz asked as Andrew stopped him short of entering the U-wing. Tears were now streaming down Nezrineís face.

"There was an accident," Andrew said mournfully.

Shiz looked past him to see Lyn standing over Riís charred body, shaking her to try to get her to wake up.

"Please wake up," Lyn sobbed.

"Iím so sorry," Andrew said as Shiz felt his stomach churn. He sank to the deck plating as the medical personnel gently tried to pull Lyn away, and began covering Riís body with a blanket.

Chapter 20

"What the hell happened?" asked Jalb as Thanatos stood in his dimly lit office. He was rubbing a hand against his forehead.

"Weíre not exactly sure," Thanatos said.

"But you saw it?" Jalb asked.

"I did," Thanatos said.

"Then explain to me how one of our recruits lost her life on a mission that was supposed to be recon and retrieve only," he said pointedly, glaring at Andrew.

Andrew swallowed and stared back. "I, uh," he began, "Iím not sure."

Reynoldsís eyes narrowed.

"I was trying to evade the six Interceptors on me," Andrew continued. "I heard her more than I saw. She kept saying something about her astromech -- Sparks -- not letting her fly the craft."

"The astromech was in control?" Jalb asked incredulously.

"Not deliberately," Andrew said. "At no point did she give it orders to take over. Before Syntax and the others arrived, her X-wing took a hit. She said that she lost her astromech. Then she started screaming at it to stop and let her eject Ö but it wouldnít."

Jalb let out a sigh. "Thank you, Major," he said quietly. "That will be all for now."

Andrew got up, gave a quick salute, and exited Reynoldsís office. Thanatos slid into the seat that Andrew had vacated.

"What did you see?" he asked tiredly.

"We were on approach," Thanatos began. "She was on an intercept vector with us. Syntax was chasing the squint on her tail, but just wasnít able to hit him."

"How?" asked Jalb. "Heís one of our best pilots?"

"TIE pilot was flying aggressively. Evading every shot. Next thing I know, her X-wing surges towards us, then suddenly rotates one-eighty in a drift. The squint pilot rolls his craft, avoiding Syntax once more -- and he gets her with a quad burst."

"Did you get him?" Jalb asked.

"Got a few shots off, but nothing good enough to shoot him down. We chased the original four Interceptors away after the second pair retreated, but didnít follow them back into the asteroid field. If anything, Iíd say they were stalling for time."

"Lucky you didnít," Reynolds said. "I passed the description you gave me to Major Murg. Those flight markings match those of the One-Hundred-and Sixty-Fifth Squadron. Not quite as skilled as the Hundred-and-Eighty-First, but pretty damn close. They excel at hunting Rebel Ö New Republic fighters -- and winning. There didnít happen to be a Light Cruiser in the combat zone by chance?"

"No, there wasnít. Odd that theyíd be out this far," Thanatos said. "Any idea as to why?"

"Murg is still investigating with our sources. Whatever the reason, they were able to retrieve their downed shuttle crew and whatever asset was on it. In the meantime, tech crews have been sent to investigate the wreckage and whatís left of the astromech. Hopefully weíll be able to find something."

"I think we should call off the mission for the recruits," Thanatos said.

"Would that we could," Jalb replied.

"What do you mean?" he asked. "If anything, they should sit out the next live mission after what happened."

"Donít think I donít agree," Jalb said. "New intel report came in this morning after you left. Barandís convoy is half a day ahead of schedule. Rear Admiral Tolden wants the full force of Rogue Squadron plus the recruits to take it out."

"The Rear Admiral ordered you to?" Thanatos asked incredulously. "But wasnít it Murgís mission?"

"Yes, but after the new intel piece, heís taken control of the mission directly. I canít go against his orders," Jalb said with a sigh. "I knew I should never have said yes to your idea."

"Iím sorry for even suggesting it," Thanatos said regretfully after a moment.

"Letís just hope that nothing else goes wrong," Jalb said. "Iíd hate to lose anyone else. Have the other Rogues ready. I want them in top shape here on out. And do your best to keep Bulldog away from the bar. I want him sober for the next mission."

***

"Hi," Dia said as she walked up to Andrewís table in the Lounge. He was staring out the viewport window.

"Hi," he replied, twisting his head to look at her.

"Mind if I join you?" she asked, setting a hand on the back of the chair next to him.

"Always," he said. She pulled it out and sat down.

"I heard what happened," she said. "How are you doing?"

"Iím fine," Andrew said with a shrug. "Well, mostly. Always a bit of a shock when someone you know gets shot down."

"Always is," she replied.

"I think what bugs me the most," he said after a moment, looking out the window, then back at her, "were her screams to tell her astromech to stop. Itís unnerving," he finished with a shudder.

"I bet that would be," Dia said, taking her hand. He squeezed it in return. "Sure you donít want to see the shipís counsellor about it?"

"Doc has been pretty backed up lately," Andrew replied. "Really hard to get an appointment. But I will if I need to."

"Thank you," Dia said with a small smile.

They sat for some time, enjoying each otherís company and gazing out at the stars and ships before she spoke again. "I know it may not be the right time," she said, reaching into her flight suit pocket. "But I have my response," she said, holding out a holo puck.

Andrew stared at it, then took it from her outreached hand. "Thanks," he said, "Iíll look at it later Ö if thatís alright?"

"No rush," she said as he pocketed it. "Though, after what happened with Ri, I have another proposal of my own."

"Oh?"

"Whatever happens, after tomorrow I want you to come with me to my Auntís. Sheís offered to pull some strings for us for a temporary reassignment."

"Temporary reassignment?" Andrew asked, his brow furrowing.

"Itís complicated," Dia said, "but the bottom line is that we can be somewhere safe for a few months. I know itíll take you away from the wing, but I--"

"Okay," he said before she could finish. That caught her off guard.

"Really?" she asked.

"Yes," he said. "Iím okay with going to your Auntís with you. Iím sure that Jalb will enjoy having me out of his hair for a while, too. But I must warn you, if your Aunt tries to put the moves on me, Iím going to need your protection."

Dia gave a small laugh. "Believe me, as long as Iím around, she wonít even get a chance to."

"Good," Andrew said. "Iíd hate to see what happens if she did."

"Iím sure that Uncle will keep her more than occupied," Dia said with a wink.

***

Grixx stood outside of Lynís quarters. Pilots and other personnel walked by as he looked at the control panel. Part of him wanted to leave. The other part insisted that he enter. Before he knew it, his hand reached out to press the button on the panel. The door slid open a few seconds later to reveal Nirobi.

"Nirobi," Grixx said awkwardly. "Hi. Is, ah Ö is Lyn here?"

"She is," she began, "but Iím not sure right now is--."

"Itís okay," he heard Lyn call hoarsely. Nirobi moved aside to let him in, then excused herself to go get some water.

He saw her sitting on her bunk, eyes bloodshot and the remains of tears on her cheeks. "Hi," he said after a moment.

"H-hey," she snorted, wiping her nose.

After pushing down emotions for so long, everything about this felt awkward. He wanted to run away, but his feet wouldnít budge. "I, ah, heard what happened," he said after a moment. "Thought Iíd see how youíre doing."

Lyn continued to look at him, sniffling, and said nothing.

"If nowís not a good time," he said, panic starting to set in, "I can come back later." He turned towards the door.

"Wait!" she croaked before heíd been able to reach it. He turned to face her. She was standing now, fresh tears streaming down her face. "Donít go."

"I wonít," he said, turning back to face her.

The next thing he knew, she moved towards him.

"I wish I had been there faster," she sobbed as she took hold of him. "Why wasnít I faster?"

"Itís okay," he said as she buried her head into her chest and began heaving sobs. He wrapped his arms around her. He definitely felt out of place, but wouldnít have left her alone for anything else now. "Iím here," he said, stroking her head. "Iím here."

***

"You sure I canít do anything else for you?" Grin asked as he stared at Shiz, who was lying in his bunk. "You havenít eaten anything, and the fleet battle simulations start in an hour."

"Iím not hungry," Shiz muttered.

"Buddy," Grin said, kneeling down, "I canít even imagine what youíre going through. But you gotta eat something."

Shiz rolled over in his bunk, his back facing Grin now. "Grin," he said quietly, "I just want some alone time."

"Okay," Grin said with a sigh after a moment. He reached out and squeezed Shizís shoulder. "Iíll be in the Mess Hall. Join me when youíre ready."

Grin stood up and began to walk towards the door.

"Grin?" Shiz said.

"Yeah?" Grin asked, turning back towards his friend.

"Whyíd she have to die?"

Grin stood there, unsure of what to answer. "I donít know," he said finally. "Sometimes Ö these things just happen."

Chapter 21

Most of the recruits met in the simulation room an hour later. A few stragglers kept them waiting. The mood was sombre as Thanatos checked the chronometer.

"We might as well start," jalb said finally. The room remained silent. "Before we do," he said, "Iíd like to acknowledge what happened to Ri earlier today."

Nezrine wiped her eyes, and Grin wrapped an arm around her shoulder in a show of support.

"Losing someone is never easy," Jalb continued, "and I want to assure you that a full investigation is taking place to determine what happened."

The door hissed open. Grixx, Shiz, and Lyn entered the room.

"As Rogues, we face danger every day. And while youíll never be told to push your feelings aside, I would encourage you all to channel them into something you can use."

The eyes of the recruits stared back at him.

"If nothing else, do what comes next for Ri. Not to simply avenge her, but to honor her." He turned to nod at Thanatos.

"Alright then," Thanatos said, "everyone to your pods. The simulation will begin shortly."

Every Rogue and recruit entered a pod. As the capsule hissed shut, the monitors sprung to life. Without question, the first hour of fleet battles went horribly as the Rogues continuously steamrolled the recruits. Regardless of whatever tactic they used, they just couldnít focus or coordinate as a group.

"Itís nine to six," said Nirobi, "no way we should be losing this bad."

"Agreed," said Miran as they climbed out of the pods for a break. "Though it doesnít help that half of them are drifting to the point of not being able to target them, and the other half are focusing us down."

"Whoo-oh!" said Bulldog, pinching his nostrils together with his index finger and thumb. "You all sure stink. I bet I could beat you all while blindfolded and tipsy."

"Shutup, Bulldog," growled Grixx.

Some of the other pilots looked at Grixx in shock.

Bulldogís eyes narrowed.

"Did he just--?" Miran asked.

"He did," Dia said flatly.

Bulldog walked up to Grixx and stared into his eyes, then glanced at Reynolds. "Lucky for you I have more important things to make people do," Bulldog growled before walking off.

"Take five, everyone," Jalb said from his pod. "Weíll try again then."

"I donít get it," Dia said, stepping in next to Andrew, "they get us with every strategy we try."

"I know," he replied lowly. "Theyíre anticipating every loadout and tactic we try and do. It also doesnít help when Shiz pinballs his A-wing all the way through Galitan, among other maps."

"Any ideas?" she asked.

"I have one that comes to mind," he said.

"Go on."

"Listen to Grixx."

Dia blinked at him. "Youíre kidding!"

Andrew shook his head from side to side. "Itís the only thing we havenít tried," he said. "And right about now, Iím open to suggestions."

"Thatís probably the smartest thing Iíve heard out of you yet, Major," Grixx said from behind them. They both turned to find him standing there with his arms folded, a smug look on his face. "And if we want to win this, youíre going to have to do exactly what I say."

***

"Canít we just call it a night?" Lock asked, looking at the huddle of recruits on the far side of the room. "Weíve whipped their tails every match."

"Donít really look like Rogue material if we keep flipping and off-phasing them so quickly," Bulldog said. "Though I canít say I donít appreciate a high kill count."

"They deserve a chance," said Jasted. "Especially with everything theyíve encountered and been through until now."

"Agreed," said Thanatos.

"Lieutenant Colonel," called Grixx as the recruits broke apart. "We have a proposition for you."

Jalb exchanged glances with his fellow Rogues. "Iím listening," he called back.

"Letís double the score," Grixx said. "Every kill we get is worth two points. And every time we wipe all six of you, Bulldog has to buy us a round of drinks."

All the Rogues looked at one another and began to laugh.

Grixx kept his stone-faced scowl. "Well?" he asked. "Is it a deal?"

"You," said Hellcat, wiping his eyes, "havenít collectively been able to do that all night. What makes you think youíll get us this time?"

"We might not," said Nerzine.

"But that doesnít stop us from trying," Grin said.

Reynolds looked to his fellow Rogues, who shot him looks of enthusiasm. "Weíll do it on one condition," he said. "If we win again, youíre cleaning our X-wings and giving them new coats of paint."

"Deal," called Grixx without hesitating.

"Well then," said Jalb, slipping his helmet on, "letís see what sterner stuff youíre made out of."

***

As the simulation loaded in, the six Rogues exited the hangar of the Star Destroyer in their TIE loadouts. Their map was Yavin IV. Jalb was in his strike TIE, while Thanatos and Jasted both took TIE Defenders. That left Lock, Hellcat, and Bulldog to take TIE Bombers equipped for taking out AI X-wings en masse.

"Two U-wings?" called Bulldog as they headed above the Corellian Corvette exchanging blows in the centre of the map. "That paint jobís going to look extra nice."

Reynolds targeted the Corellian Corvette. As the targeting range ticked down, his warhead locks turned green.

"Spark One, Fox Two," he called as he sent a set of ion and proton torpedoes out towards the Corvette. They were mere seconds from impacting the Corvette when he saw their starfighter formations break. An A-wing rocketed forward and fired a burst of shots, then tore away. Jalb watched as the warheads exploded before contact.

Jalb began chasing after the A-wing, firing away at it furiously. Suddenly, it dropped off his radar. A stealth A-wing? thought Jalb. This will be fun after all.

***

As Shiz shot forward in his A-wing, Andrew and Dia broke right to target the Imperial Raider, while Nirobi and Miran broke left with their dogfighting Y-wings.

"Spark One, Fox Two!" Andrew called as his warheads shot forward and he maneuvered away.

"Fox Two!" Dia called as she let a proton torpedo loose and followed him.

As they angled to begin their second pass, he could see the Y-wings, X-wings, and A-wings mixing it up with the opposing fighters. Streams of lasers, as well as ion turrets and ion cannon shot, shot in every direction.

"Haha!" called Miran as he shot down one of the TIE Bombers. "Splash one!"

"Positive impact on the Raider," Andrew called. "Fox Two!" he called as he let loose his second proton torpedo.

"Beginning strafing run," Dia said. "Fox Two!" Fully charged quad lasers pounded across the hull of the Raider. It quickly dropped to forty percent. Then thiry. It wasnít long before it exploded.

And the white progress meter along the tops of their screens surged past the half-way point.

"Keep up the momentum!" Andrew called as he and Dia began blasting away at packs of AI TIE Fighters.

***

"Are they actually winning?" Bulldog asked as he re-launched from the Star Destroyer.

"Aargh!" said a frustrated Lock as his TIE Bomber exploded.

"Looks like they are," Hellcat said. "Thanatos, a little help?"

"Busy trying to out-drift them," he said, "but Iíll be right--." He stopped himself as his TIE Defender began surging with ion electricity from being disabled by the Y-wings and their ion turrets. "... there," he finished as his craft exploded.

The red progress bar across the top of his screen slid backwards even further.

As Jalb continued his chase of the A-wing, he scored a direct hit on its backside. Its shields melted away, and its engines began to smoke. I have you now! he thought. The A-wing disappeared from his targeting computer again, and as he tried to follow it with his visual scanning in its turn, it dropped a homing mine. Jalb tried to slide away at the last minute, but his craft erupted into a ball of flames.

Son of a bitch! he cursed as the round flipped.

***

"Holy moof milker," Nirobi said. "We did it!"

"No time to celebrate yet," Grixx called. "Lyn, Nezrine, resupply the X-wings then follow them in. Weíll be right behind you. Everyone else, keep those fighters off-balance."

Grixx was met with a string of "You got it, boss!" and "Copy that!"

"Andrew, target Light Cruiser ĎCharlieí. Dia, head for Light Cruiser ĎDeltaí, then bug out."

The wave of fighters surged towards their targets. The interceptors kept any Rogues who were engaging the attacks busy and off-balance as best they could.

"Spark One, Fox Two!" called Andrew and Dia as they began their attack runs.

"Lyn, Nezrine, youíre up," called Grixx as he chased Hellcat. Firing a series of quad bursts, Hellcatís TIE Interceptor disintegrated into a spinning ball of fire.

"Missile turrets out," called Lyn.

"Falling back," echoed Nezrine.

Grixx watched as the rocket turrets pounded away at the hull of the Charlie. One by one, the missile turrets and gun emplacements along the top of its hull were blasted away. Andrew and Dia also completed their second torpedo runs before breaking away towards the U-wings for a reload. His shields began to melt away as someone from behind shot green lasers at him. Modulating his shield spread, he began evasive maneuvers. Targeting his attacker, he saw that it was Jalb in a TIE Interceptor, this time with a stream of barrage rockets.

Iím going to enjoy this, thought Grixx as he put full power to his engines and began drifting to avoid his attacker.

***

"Die you stupid--," Jalb said as the barrage of rockets missed. As Grixx slid past him, his TIE Interceptor took damage from several shots. Artificial smoke began to fill his screen.

Going evasive, he hit his auto-repair button and shifted all power to engines. He began his own drift maneuver, and made to line up his shot to face Grixx.

The X-wing was waiting for him and blasted him out of the sky.

***

"Cruiser down!" Andrew called as Charlie broke apart in flames and explosions.

"I see it, Andrew," Grixx called. "Good work."

Lyn and Nezrine snuck in and set up some new turrets on Delta before bugging out again.

"Splash three!" Grin called as he shot down another member of Rogue Squadron.

With at least half of the Rogues waiting to reload at this point, Grixx, Shiz, and Grin continued their attack against the fighters while Nirobi and Miran joined Andrew and Dia in assaulting Delta along with the still-active Corellian Corvette.

The white bar across the top of the screen had inched back by maybe a quarter, but only because of the AI X-wings being killed. A string of announcements of fighters making their attack runs or bombing runs ran through the comm. Within no time, Delta was down.

"U-wings," Grixx called as he shot down Thanatos, "reload the X-wings so they can begin their attack runs. Everyone else, fall back to the cruisers and reload or swap out."

The fighters did as they were told, and the cover fire from the two mostly undamaged Nebulon-B Frigates gave them adequate cover from the Rogues.

Andrew and Dia lined up their attack runs, the Rogues now just launching trying to target them. "Two fighters against a Star Destroyer?" she said. "I like our odds."

Boosting forward at full speed, approaching from the tip of the Star Destroyerís frame, the two X-wings shot forward. Andrew inverted his craft and slid under the shields, heading towards the underside of the Star Destroyer. Dia, in the meantime, slid underneath the shields on the upper part of the Destroyer. Both announced the launch of their warheads. As Andrew peeled away from the underside, the giant power system blister near the rear of the Star Destroyer exploded into a pillar of flame.

Firing several shots at the Targeting Array off before she was forced to break away, her warheads impacted. Blue energy surged over it, indicating that it was disabled. "Positive impact!" they both called. As she turned and made a mad dash away from the Star Destroyer, she saw purple-blue blisters begin to form across various parts of the Star Destroyerís hull.

"Crispy bits on the top," she said.

"Two on the bottom front," Andrew called.

The rest of the team was waiting for them at the Frigates.

***

"Rogues," said Jalb, "form up. Defensive pattern Theta-Omega."

The six TIE-class fighters took up positions above or below the frame of the Star Destroyer. Hellcat had switched to a TIE Reaper and began setting up auto-aim turrets for defense.

"Looks like theyíre using a mix of X-wings, A-wings, and Y-wings," Lock called.

"Whatever happens, remember to call your targets and take down the ones heading for any critical systems. We can still win this."

***

"Okay team," Grixx said as he formed up with the starfighters. Andrew and Dia had finished reloading underneath the Frigates and joined them. "We go in as one. Andrew and Dia will fire their ion torps with Nezrine and Lyn right behind them. Target every critical system and melt them down. Shiz, you and your group keep the Rogues at bay."

"What about you, Grixx?" Shiz asked.

A grin spread across Grixxís face. "Iím going to get me some crispy bits."

***

Bulldog watched as the New Republic starfighters surged forward as one. Heíd switched to his anti-starfighter TIE Bomber. Shifting his power to engines, he began charging up his rotary cannons. His cluster and Goliath missiles were full and ready to be used. Theyíll never get past me, he thought.

Laser and ion cannon fire began pouring forth from the Star Destroyer. They were in range. Easing his throttle forward, he began his attack.

***

"Spark One!" Andrew and Dia called. Their ion torpedoes dove down towards the Star Destroyerís shields, and each raced towards the bulbous shield generators on the top of the Star Destroyerís bridge section. Lyn and Nezrine were a few seconds behind, dropping payloads of ion bombs. As the shields melted away to nothing, they switched and began dropping cluster bombs across the hull.

The defending Imperial fighters tried to target them, but they each threw power to their engines and began boost-drifting away from the Star Destroyer.

"Shield gens damaged," called Andrew as the two X-wings slipped between them. "Beginning second run!" Various calls for help and orders spilled over the comm channel.

"Heís on me!" Grin called.

"Iím on him!" Shiz said.

"Watch out for those turrets," Nezrine said.

And throughout the whole time Gixx micro-drifted around the Star Destroyer, blasting away at crispy bits.

***

"Move, Rogues, move!" called Jalb angrily. Plumes of fire rose from the Star Destroyer as the crispy sections went up in flames.

He saw the shield generators go up in flames as the X-wings and Y-wings either launched proton torpedoes into them, or micro-drifted in arcs while firing their laser cannons.

***

"We did it!" Andrew called as the word VICTORY! slid across the screen. It suddenly cut away to show the nine fighters flying in formation away from the Star Destroyer.

Cheers and shouts rose over the comm.

"Well done, everyone," Grixx said. "Well done."

***

The pods hissed open, and the pilots spilled out onto the floor, cheering and whooping.

"I donít believe it," Lock said. "We lost."

"Without killing them once," Hellcat said. "How?"

"Teamwork," said Jalb as he crossed his arms in amusement.

"So," said Jasted, "whatís the final damage?"

"Three rounds," said Thanatos as he checked the kill scores.

Bulldog groaned.

Chapter 22

The last leg of the night was spent in the Lounge, celebrating their victory over the Rogues. Reynolds had informed them of a briefing first thing in the morning, but that didnít stop Iggy from serving them non-alcoholic drinks.

Shiz sat at a table with Grin near the jukebox, neither one of them saying much as Shiz looked distantly into his mug. Andrew and Dia occupied a booth on the far side of the room, and were sitting close to one another, clearly enjoying their company. Nezrine was throwing darts by herself at the dart board, while the rest were milling about the bar or at different tables. Grixx and Lyn were occupying a table near the viewport window, neither of them saying a word.

The Rogues, meanwhile, occupied two billiards tables in the entertainment section, taking turns shooting at the spheres with their sticks.

"Gotta say," Dia said, leaning against Andrew, "that was a nice way to end the night."

"It was," he said with a smile. "Though I doubt our tactics would work as well in a real fight."

"Maybe," she said, "but sometimes life is full of surprises." She waited until Jalb wasnít looking to slip him a kiss on the cheek. His face turned red as she giggled, and he wrapped an arm around her waist and drew her in closer.

***

Jalb forcefully slammed the pool cue forward. The white cue ball shot forward, causing the others to scatter in every direction. "So," he said to the others around the table, "what do we think?"

Thanatos lined up his pool cue and took the first shot. The One ball thwacked against the edge of the corner pocket as it went in. "A lot of potential there," Thanatos said with a nod.

"Canít we just accept them all?" Lock asked. "Would make the schedule more flexible."

"Orders are orders," Jalb said. "Command only gave orders to fill six slots."

"Which means we need to cut three," Jasted said. "Or, rather, you two do," he nodded towards Reynolds and Thanatos.

"Alright," said Jalb as Thanatos missed his next shot. He lined up his shot to sink the Two ball into a middle pocket. Snap! "Iím open to arguments."

"Grixx concerns me," Thanatos said. "True, he has performed above and beyond many of the others skill wise. But Iím more concerned with his mental health and how heíll get along with the rest of the squadron. Heís the lone wolf type. That could be dangerous."

"I also donít want to be in a position to buy him drinks," griped Bulldog as he leaned against an adjacent table, his arms folded.

"Noted," said Jalb as he made to sink another pool ball. Snap!

"Nirobi hasnít performed as well, comparatively speaking," Thanatos said. "Sheís decent, but Iím not convinced sheíd last long." Jasted and Hellcat nodded in agreement.

"Fair," said Jalb as he sank another pool ball. "Other concerns?"

"Most everyone else is good," Thanatos said.

"Lots of pairs that work well together," Lock chimed in. "Grin and Shiz, for example."

Snap! Another pool ball in a corner pocket.

"And Nezrine and Lyn," Thanatos continued.

Snap! The Four ball connected against the Six, pushing it into a middle pocket.

"Diaís proved herself well enough," Thanatos said.

"Surprisingly, yes," Jalb responded as he lined up his shot. "Sheíd make a valuable Rogue."

"And what about Dobber?" Lock asked, nodding in his direction.

Snap! The cue ball missed ricocheted in the opposite direction that Reynolds had intended. It came to a stop behind the black Eight ball.

"Question is," Bulldog offered with a shrug, "how much paperwork do you really want to do with that guy?"

"Paperwork doesnít so much concern me," Jalb said, "especially when I can hand it off to you."

Bulldog raised his hands in defense and spoke no further on the matter.

"Heís likable," Thanatos said. "Really pulled the team together. But made a lot of early errors that cost him. Even with his performance in the fleet battles, Iím not sure itís enough. And honestly, the way he and Dia took down our Star Destroyer -- heíd be better off in Bucc."

"Lots to think about then," Jalb said as Thanatos began to move around the table and line up his next shot. "Iíll take your feedback under advisement. Thanatos and I will make the decision tomorrow."

***

Their revelry for the evening done, the recruits walked down the hall towards their rooms. Reynolds had informed them of a briefing first-thing in the morning, and to be prepared to come in full piloting gear. Some walked down the hallway in silence. Others were busily chatting away.

Andrew and Dia stepped into her quarters to say their final goodbyes for the evening. As the others filtered into their cabins, Grixx escorted Lyn to hers. Nirobi decided to give them a few minutes and headed to her locker to double-check her gear for tomorrow.

"Here we are," Grixx said. Pressing the button, the door slid open. Hesitantly, he asked, "Would you like me to...?"

"Yes," said Lyn, looking at him tiredly. "If you can spare a minute."

"I can," he said as she stepped in. The door closed behind him as he entered.

Lyn moved about the room, rubbing her face and neck. "What a day," she said.

Grixx shoved his hands in his pockets, nodding in agreement. Not necessarily one for words, he thought about what to say. What he could say under the circumstances. "How," he asked slowly, "are you doing?"

"Iím Ö okay," Lyn said, biting her lip.

Thatís a lie if Iíve ever heard one, Grixx thought. "Well, ah, if you need anything else," he said with a shrug, "Iíll be Ö around." He turned to leave.

"Grixx," said Lyn as he did, "wait."

He turned to face her. She walked over to him and took his hands. He closed them around hers. "You know from my story," he said after a moment, "that I know what itís like to lose people." He rubbed his thumbs over her hands. "And you know why Iím as tough as I am."

She nodded slowly.

"But for you," he said as she continued to look for him, "Iíll only be as rough around the edges as you need me to be."

"Thank you," she said softly.

"Iím sorry about Ri," he said, "truly. I Ö regret not being nicer to her."

Lyn sniffed, her eyes beginning to turn red again. "Not your fault, sugar," she said, "just the way you are sometimes."

"You sure you donít want me to stay longer?" he asked.

"Nothing a good nightís sleep canít fix," Lyn said.

"Okay," he said. He let go of her hands, dropping his to his sides. After a moment, hers found their way up around his neck, and she reached up to kiss him gently once.

"Thank you," she said as they broke apart, looking down then up at him, "for being with me today."

"Darliní," he said with a wink, "pleasureís been all mine."

They kissed twice more before he left, the door closing behind him.

***

"Okay," he said in between kisses as Dia squeezed her arms around him, "oka--ay, enough -- is -- enough."

"Five more minutes?" she asked innocently.

"Five more minutes and Jalb will probably come barging through that door," he said. They both laughed. BD watched with curiosity from the desk.

"Tonight was nice," she said, smiling.

"It was," he said, "and tomorrow will be better."

She kissed him again. "It will," she said, "I just know it."

"Hey," he said, taking her hand. "Youíre wearing the ring."

"I am," she said coyly.

"So that means?..."

"It means," she said with a grin, "that you still need to watch the message I gave you. Thereís a few other important things on it."

He smiled in return, and their lips locked together for several times more.

BD hooted in excitement and began chirping a romantic tune.

"Have to say," she said as they parted, holding out her ring hand. "You sure know how to pick Ďem. Too bad it wonít fit under my piloting gloves comfortably."

"I try," he said with a wink. "Okay, I really have to go."

As he turned, she swatted his rear-end playfully and gave a laugh.

"Ow!" he exclaimed. "Will you kriffing stop doing that?!"

"Live and learn," she said playfully as he rubbed his buttox and left the room.

Walking down the hall, he entered his room, feeling like he was on top of the world. He sat down at his desk and took out the holo puck. As her image appeared, the message began to play.

When it was done, he jumped out of his chair and stormed down the hall to her room. Not waiting for her to answer, he barged into the room. She was waiting on the bed, hands folded in her lap.

"Why didnít you tell me sooner?!" he asked, his eyes wide.

"Surprise," she said, laughing nervously.

"We need to talk," he said firmly.

Chapter 23

"As you can see here," Mogazz Murg said as the holograms shifted into place, "there will be a convoy of twelve heavy freighters leaving from one of Tol Barandís facilities in the sector."

Jalb stood at the back of the room leaning against the wall, his arms folded. He still didnít like this one bit.

"We anticipate a standard TIE Fighter escort from the base to the hyperspace lane jump point. The mission is simple: eliminate the TIE escorts. Once that is completed, inspect and destroy the freighters that are carrying bio-weapons."

Murmurs rose from the pilots in their seats.

Thanatos leaned in to talk quietly with Jalb. "I say we have the techs load our A-wings with heavy rockets. The six of us can easily take down the TIEs and do strafing runs on the freighters. Weíd be done in two, three minutes tops. The recruits can hang back and watch how it's done. No harm, no foul."

"That would be ideal," Jalb murmured back, "but it's out of my hands. The ships are already equipped."

"Given the nature of this mission," Murg continued, "the key will be efficiency. While it seems simple in nature, and something that even Corsair or Buccaneer could handle, youíll be deep in enemy territory. Teamwork is essential. Get in, destroy your targets, then retreat. With any luck, youíll be back in time before the bar closes."

Chuckles and laughter rose from several members in the audience.

"Any questions?" Murg asked.

Thanatos looked at Jalb, then at Murg. "Major," Thanatos called, stepping forward as the hologram melted and the lights rose once more. "If I may Ö this isnít our mission."

The pilots and other personnel in the room turned to look at Thanatos.

"How so, Major Marco?" Murg asked.

Thanatos looked around at everyone in the room. They, in turn, looked at him. "While it was my suggestion," Thanatos continued, "it was one I made in error. Theyíre recruits. Not full members of Rogue Squadron. Not yet."

"I agree, Major," Murg said after a moment, "and if I had the power to change the mission, I would. But my own orders come directly from the Vice Admiral. Those freighters need to be destroyed."

"Sir," said Grin standing up to face Thanatos, shifting his pilot helmet under his arm and against his waist. "This is what weíve been training for. What we joined for. Iíve seen first-hand what the Empire can do with Baradium strikes. If these bioweapons are something Barand can use against the New Republic or civilians, we need to stop him."

Others began to nod and agree with Grin.

"Time is of the essence," said Murg. "Get to your ships. And may the Force be with you."

"Well," said Thanatos, turning to Jalb and shrugging, "canít say I didnít try."

***

"I really think you should sit this one out," Andrew said lowly as he leaned over to talk to Dia.

"Weíve been through this," she said, "and you know my answer."

"I know," he said as they got up and began filtering out with the others, "but knowing what I know now, you can legitimately go see the doc and get yourself excused."

"And leave you alone?" she asked, eying him. "No way. Weíre in this together. Itís a simple mission. We go in, things go boom, we get out."

"What will it take?" he asked, grabbing her arm gently. "What will it take to convince you?"

Before she could respond, Jalb piped up from behind them. "Everything alright, Major? Captain?" he asked.

"Yes, sir," Andrew said, turning to face Jalb and letting go of Dia, "just discussing the mission."

"If there is something that needs airing out," he said, "now is the time."

"I Ö donít think she should fly this mission, sir," Andrew said after a moment. Dia shot him a look of disgust.

"Oh?" Jalb asked. "Why not?"

"Medical reasons," Andrew said, "sheís, ah Ö how do I put thisÖ."

"Perfectly fine and capable to fly this mission and perform my duties," she said, glancing sourly at Andrew, then at Jalb. "Sir," she finished.

Jalb looked at both of them. "Look," he said, folding his arms, "whatever is going on between you, air it out before we launch. Otherwise, I look forward to having you as my Rogues Two and Three for this mission."

"Yes, sir," Andrew said reluctantly.

"Good," Jalb replied coolly. "See you in the hangar."

Dia punched him as Jalb walked away. "Nerfherder," she said bitterly.

"Just trying to watch out for you," he said, rubbing his shoulder as they began to walk away.

"Which I appreciate," she said, "but not right now."

"Fine," he said, dropping the subject entirely, and they walked to the hangar in silence.

***

When they arrived, the tech crews were loading the astromechs into the recruits' X-wings. The black-and-grey A-wings of Rogue Squadron were being prepped simultaneously, fuel hoses connected to the fuel tanks.

"Iím sorry," Andrew said finally.

"For what?" she asked, turning to face him. The X-wing flight crew attached her ladder to her X-wing, and finished lowering her astromech into its socket. It looked around curiously, its dome spinning.

"For arguing," he said. "Iíd just feel better if--"

"Donít worry," she said, touching his arm and giving him a smile. "Weíll be fine."

Disregarding everyone else around them, he leaned in to kiss her.

"Save it for the celebrations after, Major!" Jalb called from behind them.

"What was that for?" she asked, surprised.

"For luck," he said, "and because I love you."

She grinned and shook her head. "Get aboard you goofball," she said.

"Yes maíam," he said, walking away and saluting her. As he rounded the corner and ducked under his S-foils, Io was being loaded into her socket.

"Good morning, sir," said Chief Mechanic Talza Jech.

"Morning, Talza," Andrew said.

"Everything checks green," she said. "Good luck today."

"Iíll see you when I get back," he said, grabbing onto the rungs of his ladder.

"Iíll have fresh cans of black and gold paint waiting for you, sir," she said.

"Chief Mechanic Jech to the comm station for an urgent message," came a voice over the hangar speakers. "Chief Mechanic Jech to the comm station for an urgent message."

Andrew shook his head. "Donít get excited yet. Still need the OK from the bossman." With that, he climbed up the ladder and plunked himself down in his seat, slipping his helmet on. As the ladder was pulled away, he began his pre-flight checkup and closed his canopy. All systems were green, and he waited for the deck crews to wave him to launch. Jalb was the first to take off, then Dia, and then it was his turn. The X-wing lifted off the deck, and he angled to follow those ahead of him out, while the rest trailed behind him.

"All wings report in," called Jalb when they assembled into formation adjacent to the fleet.

"Rogue Two, standing by," Dia said.

"Rogue Three, standing by," he repeated.

The check-ins continued on. He let out a breath to calm his nerves. He hadnít expected to be nervous about a mission like this, but it was an important one.

"Rogue Seven, standing by."

You can do this, he thought to himself.

"Rogue Nine, standing by."

Just watch your six, and stay close to her.

"Rogue Eleven, standing by."

The digital nav buoy activated.

"Rogue Fifteen, standing by," came Grixxís voice.

"Prepare to receive hyperspace coordinates," Jalb said as he gave the last bit of instructions.

As the hyperspace coordinates were downloaded, Andrew took one last glance at Dia.

"Mark," Jalb said.

Reaching for his hyperspace lever, he pulled it back, and the stars began to stretch.

***

Talza Jech walked up to the communications station in the main hangar.

"Jech here," she said as the screen changed frequency. It was the head of the astromech maintenance department. Odd that heíd be reaching out to me, she thought.

"Jech," said the man on the other end. "Have you loaded the astromechs?"

"Yes," she asked. "Why?"

***

Five minutes later, Jech found herself running towards the bridge, the astromech maintenance chief hot on her heels. She normally wouldnít have had a reason to report to the bridge, but this was urgent.

Two troopers flagged her down before she could enter. "Woah," one of them said, holding up a hand, "where do you think youíre going?"

"The Captain," she said as the troopers caught them, "we have to see him immediately." She could make out the bridge crew and personnel milling about their stations. The Captain and Major Murg were on the far side of the tactical console, up on the bridge control section.

"Captain!" she hollered, struggling against the guards. "Captain! Call them back! You have to call them back!"

Chapter 24

The nine X-wings and six A-wings slipped out of hyperspace. The area was vast and dark, save for a pale brown world off in the distance and the familiar dots of a million stars.

"Freighters, dead ahead," said Thanatos over the radio.

"I see them," Jalb said. "Rogues, lock S-foils into attack position."

Andrew saw Diaís X-wing S-foils opened, and he followed suit. One by one the rest opened.

"Only a half-squadron of escorts," said Thanatos. "Thatís not what we expected."

"Must mean more kills for me," Lock said.

"Cut the chatter, Rogue Nine," Jalb called. "All fighters accelerate to attack speed." The fifteen starfighters surged forward, racing towards their targets. "A-wings, inspect the freighters and destroy the fighters. X-wings, stick with your wingmen and get ready to engage."

"Copy, Rogue Leader," said Dia.

"Here we go," muttered Andrew as he saw the TIEs break away and move to engage them.

It had begun.

The A-wings and TIEs exchanged shots, then began maneuvering to try and avoid or hunt one another. Andrew watched as Rogue Five began an approach to inspect the convoy. He had only passed the first few freighters when he spoke up.

"Iíve got a problem, boss," Jasted said.

"Go ahead, Five."

"Freighters register an Imperial IFF," he said, "but I canít verify the cargo."

"How is that possible?" Jalb asked.

"Not sure, sir, but my scanners arenít registering anything. I canít even determine if there are lifesigns aboard."

Andrew looked around and exchanged glances with the other X-wings nearby.

"That canít be," said Jalb as he blasted a TIE to pieces.

"My sensors arenít lying, sir," Jasted said.

The freighters loomed closer, and the targeting computer in Andrewís console kept ticking down rapidly. If they couldnít verify the cargo, that could be a problem. "Orders, boss?" he asked.

"Pull back to sector R-21," Jalb said, "and stay put until I tell you to."

The X-wings broke off their attack, moving as a group to slide away from the battle.

"Weíve got company!" called Bulldog over the radio.

Checking over his shoulder, Andrew saw four triangular ships drop out of hyperspace.

***

"Hold on, Chief," the Captain said as they were let through and onto the bridge. "What is the matter?"

"You have to call them back, sir!" protested the astromech mechanic.

"I understand that," he said measuredly, "but can you tell me why?"

"Their astromechs," breathed Jech heavily, "they pose a danger. You have to recall Rogue Squadron now."

"Theyíre already engaged," Murg said. "The mission is too valuable to--."

"Just listen to us!" said the astromech technician emphatically.

Both senior officers stared at him, brows raised.

"I didnít think anything of it at first," he said, handing a data pad to Captain Quelle. "When we serviced Major Dobsonís astromech the other day, there was some unfamiliar software in it. We thought it was an old program, or maybe a glitch that needed to be fixed."

"Okay," said Quell, looking at the layout of computer code.

"And this," he continued, handing a second data pad to Major Murg, "are fragments that we were able to retrieve from First Lieutenant Mirellaís astromech after her accident."

Murg held the data pad up to Quelleís. Sure enough, a number of lines matched the same coding as the first.

"And these," Jech said, holding the third datapad up so they could both see, "are all the other astromechs the Rogue recruits have."

Sure enough, the code patterns and layouts were identical.

Murg turned to Quelle. "What is it?" Murg asked.

"We think," said the technician, "itís a virus. One that infects and reprograms an artoo unit. It could potentially explain what happened to Lieutenant Mirellaís astromech."

Before Quelle could say anything, a lieutenant called from the comms station. "Sir," she said, "priority message from Lieutenant Colonel Reynolds."

"Tell Reynolds to get his squadron back here on the double," he barked.

"They canít, sir!" she protested. "Theyíve been pinned down by the Monarch and supporting ships. One of them is an Interdictor-class cruiser. Itís impossible for them to retreat!"

***

Captain Brinna Gaspra watched with great interest from the viewport of her Star Destroyer as the X-wings broke off their attack vector.

"Have Captain Folsom activate his gravity well projectors," she said to the bridge pit crew. "And launch TIE squadrons Theta, Iota, and Sigma. Set their AI for maximum difficulty."

She turned to look back out at the viewport, her Chief striding up next to her.

"And your surprise, maíam?" he asked.

"Not just yet," she said with a wicked smile.

Chapter 25

"TIE squadrons launching!" called Thanatos as he finished off the last of the escort TIE Fighters.

"I see them," said Jalb. "Rogues Two, Three, Four, and Seven," he barked into the comm. "Attack those freighters and destroy them. Use your proton torpedoes sparingly in case we need them."

"But we donít even know their contents," protested Shiz.

"Thatís an order, Four!" Jalb yelled. "Everyone else, with me. We have to keep those TIEs busy."

The starfighters broke off into pairs and raced towards their objectives. As the Rogues engaged the first wave of TIEs, calls and orders washed over the radio.

"Dia, letís take the front pair," Andrew said. "Shiz, you and Grin take the next pair. One torpedo per freighter, weíll burn them down with lasers."

"Copy," Dia said as she slid in next to Andrew.

As the two fighters approached the lead freighters, they each marked and called their targets, announcing ĎFox Two!í to send a single torpedo out. As soon as they impacted, they began strafing runs. Bursts of quad lasers washed across the freightersí shields and hulls.

"Coming around for another pass," announced Shiz.

"Watch yourself!" Jalb called out. "Youíve got one on your tail!"

"I-I canít see him!" Nirobi called.

As Andrew lined up for a second attack, he looked to see her X-wing in the distance desperately trying to outmaneuver the fighter behind her. Within seconds, green laser blasts connected with her engines. She screamed as her X-wing disintegrated.

"Fourteenís down!" Thanatos called.

Refocusing his attention, Andrew squeezed his trigger, sending red-hot lasers towards the freighter. Its hull began to break apart as it exploded. Diaís freighter exploded not long thereafter.

"Two down," she said.

"Interceptors have broken through," Jasted called. "Watch yourselves!"

Checking his scopes and picking up visual scanning, Andrew saw three TIE Interceptors heading in their direction. "Look alive!" he called. "We have incoming!"

***

No! Jalb cursed to himself as he saw Nirobiís X-wing explode. This was exactly what he dreaded most. He heard the calls of Andrewís group as they began their strafing runs on the freighters, and Jastedís notification that some TIEs had broken through.

"Move, Rogues, move!" he called as he banked to slide in behind a TIE Interceptor. Squeezing the trigger, he sent a burst of lasers forward. They missed as the Interceptor rolled away at the last second.

Chaos filled his headset.

"Iíve got two on me!"

"Break! Break!"

"Splash twoÖ."

"I canít see him!"

"Waxed one!..."

"Heís historyÖ."

"Missile out!"

"Jalb," he heard someone call over the intercom. He couldnít make out who it was. "Jalb!" the voice said again. It was Thanatos. "Suggest we pull back. That Star Destroyerís getting close."

Angling his A-wing, Jalb saw the Star Destroyer looming closer, firing green laser blasts and blue ion shots into their direction. The freighters had begun to change course, too. "Fall back!" Jalb called. "All fighters fall back to the freighters!"

The cluster of fighters danced around one another in circles and sharp turns as they gradually but desperately moved away from the Star Destroyer.

Seeing a TIE Fighter fall on the tail of Rogue Ten, Jalb rolled his A-wing and fell in behind the TIE. Squeezing the trigger once more, he shot a missile at the TIE. It exploded on impact. "Youíre clear, Ten!" he called.

"Thanks, sugar!" Lyn replied. "Much appreciated!"

As he turned to engage another TIE, he saw a third freighter go up in flames. Most of Andrewís group was preoccupied with the three Interceptors that had broken through.

Come on, Three, Jalb thought. Get it together!

***

"Heís on you!" Dia yelled into her mic.

"I see him!" Andrew said. He began weaving left and right to avoid the stream of laser blasts from the squint behind him. "Can you get him?"

"Almost there," Dia called, "hold on!"

Lining up the fighter in her targeting computer, she squeezed the trigger and sent three blasts towards the Imperial fighter. As Andrew curved away to the right, it exploded.

"Youíre clear!" she called.

"Thanks," he said.

"Grin," Shiz called, "Iíve got one on me."

"I see him, buddy. Sit tight," Grin replied.

"Any time now," Shiz called as lasers rocked his X-wing.

"Got him!" Grin called as the squint exploded.

"Beginning my attack run," Andrew said as he angled for another run against the freighter.

Dia saw the Interceptor cut sharply and make its way towards him. "Break off!" she called. "Break of--!"

A string of lasers melted Andrewís shields as he tried to maneuver away too late.

Io began howling in fear. Shieldís gone! she texted over the screen.

"I know," Andrew grunted as he tried to locate the squint. Dumping his laser energy to shields, he began weaving desperately to avoid getting hit. "Hold on!"

"Three, break left!" Dia called.

As he did, two Gozanti cruisers and a LIght Cruiser dropped out of hyperspace right in front of him. Each Gozanti was carrying the familiar TIE Interceptors with red markings from before. "Oh shi--!" he called as he pulled up hard on his flight stick.

The TIE Interceptors began to slide away from their docking tubes.

"Weíve got company!" he yelled.

"I see them," Dia said as she vapourized the third original TIE Interceptor. Twisting her craft, she fired several shots at the new fighters. They handily dodged them and blew past her on either side.

"You boys have got company," she called, quickly glancing behind her. "Stay evasive!"

"Donít have to tell us twice," Grin said. "Full power to engines, buddy. Letís make these bootlickers think twice about going toe-to-toe with us."

***

Jalbís heart sank as he saw the Light Cruiser and two Gozantis dropped out of hyperspace. Just kriffing great, he thought. "Rogues Two, Ten, and Fifteen," he called. "Take down those new contacts. Rogue Six, with me. Letís get those new squints!"

"On it, boss," Lyn called.

"Copy," Thanatos said.

"Rogue Leader, this is Three," Andrew called as Jalb raced to engage the closest Interceptor with red markings. "We canít take down the freighters fast enough. Theyíre almost at their destination."

Jalb saw that he was right. He estimated another three or four minutes and theyíd be well within the protection of the Star Destroyer, which would make taking them down highly unlikely. "Understood, Three," Jalb replied. "All Rogue X-wings, as soon as you are free make attack runs on the freighters. Use all your torpedoes if you have to. I want them destroyed!"

"Iím on it," Nezrine called as she cut her X-wing left. She began curving around the Gozanti, avoiding its laser fire, and began diving towards the freighters. She didnít see the Interceptor slide onto her tail.

"Nezrine, youíve picked one up!" called Lyn as she finished her strafing run against the Light Cruiser. "Break off!"

"I can make it!" she called back, rolling her X-wing.

"Donít be stupid, sugar," Lyn bellowed, "break off now, Iíll be right there."

"Fox Two!" Nezrine called. "Fox Two!" Four torpedoes slid forth from her craft towards the closest freighter.

The TIE Interceptor fired and hit her port engine. It began to spew flames. Nezrine tried to pull up, but she couldnít get enough altitude. "Flight systems failing," she called.

Lyn fired shot after shot at the TIE Interceptor, forcing it to break away. But it was too late. "Eject, sugar, eject!" she called.

"Wait," Nezrine said. "I think I can--"

"Please eject!" Lyn called emphatically as Nezrineís X-wing dove towards the freighter's hull.

It was Grixx who saved her. His X-wing screamed past Lynís, S-foils closing together. Seconds before Nezrine impacted the heavily damaged freighter, he pulled ahead and stuck his right set of S-foils underneath her nose cone section. Pulling up hard, he changed her vector so that both fighters narrowly missed the hull of the freighter and slid over top of it.

"You okay?" he asked as he broke away.

"I will be," Nezrine said with a sigh. "Thanks Grixx. Dee-six, can you repair my flight controls?"

"Lyn, behind you!" Dia called.

Lyn twisted and saw the Interceptor behind her. She tried to bank, but shots connected with her fighter. "Shields down!" Lyn called as alarms and smoke filled her cockpit. She began coughing, trying to wave smoke out of the way and take evasive action. "Port engine hit!"

"Hang on, Lyn!" Grixx called as he made a U-turn towards her.

"Better hurry up," Lyn called. Green laser blasts shot past her canopy.

"Iím almost there," Grixx said, locking his S-foils again. "Keep evading!"

Another blast hit her ship. She tried to turn, but couldnít. "Lateral control systems not responding," she called.

Grixx began letting random shots fly out towards the Interceptor. They missed. "Come on," he growled, "come on!"

***

"Jalb," Hellcat said, evading another TIE Fighter. "Weíre overwhelmed. We canít keep this up. What do we do?"

"Keep shooting," Jalb said.

It really was the only option they had.

***

Lyn began pulling up, but felt her craft shake violently. Checking behind her, she saw that the Interceptor had hit her starboard side engine. It was shattered and spewing flames violently.

Grixx continued to pour lasers towards the Interceptor, but it was too late. Her craft was on the brink of exploding.

"Donít think Iím going to make it," Lyn said, glancing over her shoulder.

"Yes you will," Grixx said as he sent more laser fire towards the Interceptor. "Eject! Iím almost--!"

"Love you, sugar," Lyn said with finality. It was the Light Cruiser that got her.

"NO!" howled Grixx as her X-wing shattered and was engulfed in flames.

The Interceptor sped away, then reversed course to approach Grixx.

"Iíll kill," Grixx spat, "every karking one of them!" He poured everything his X-wing had into that Light Cruiser. Entire batteries and hull plating sections began melting away or turning into slag.

"Grixx," Andrew called as he tried to reach him. "Break off, heís on you!"

"I donít care," Grixx said, pouring more laser fire into the Light Cruiser. Tears of anger and hatred filled his eyes.

"Youíll die if you donít!"

"I donít care!" Grixx yelled.

"Damn straight youíre living!" called Syntax as his A-wing rocketed forward, lasers blazing. The TIE Interceptor never stood a chance, and shattered into a million pieces. "Take that you kriffing Imperial meatbag!" the droid cursed.

The Light Cruiser began to split apart as several explosions burst forth and tore away at it from the inside.

"Syntax!" Jalb called. "Am I glad to see you."

"Vigilantís right behind us," Syntax called. "They scrambled the tac response team first. Wonít be long now."

Chapter 26

"Maíam," said Gaspraís Chief, "long-range sensors are detecting a large New Republic attack force on their way."

"A pity," Gaspra said as she watched an X-wing explode near the Gozanti cruiser. "I was rather beginning to enjoy the show."

"Your orders?" he asked.

"Activate Project Phoenix," she said. "Instruct the remaining TIEs in Theta and Iota to focus on everything but the Rogue Squadron X-wings. I want to watch Sigma make half of them burn."

"And the rest?" he asked.

"Have the droids bring them aboard. I have a need for them. In the meantime, launch our remaining TIE squadrons. I want to keep the New Republic occupied."

"Yes, Captain," her Chief said as he went to relay the orders.

***

"Iím out of torps," Dia said as the Gozanti cruiser she was attacking exploded.

"As are we," Grin said. "Six freighters to go."

The fresh fighters from the Vigilant had managed to keep the 165th fighters, as well as others, preoccupied.

"Form up," Andrew said. "Weíll make another attack run." As they formed up and began their approach, they let loose a volley of laser fire. It impacted against the hull of the closest freighter, and it exploded brilliantly as they flew by.

"Five more like that and weíre golden," Nezrine said.

"Coming around," Shiz said.

Grixx, meanwhile, was furiously hunting any TIE-class fighter he could find. More had launched from the Monarch. "Splash seven!" he spat. "Splash eight!"

"Rogue Fifteen, ignore the--," Jalb tried to say.

"Splash nine!" snarled Grixx.

"Fire!" Andrew called as they began their approach. The freighter went up in flames as they made their pass.

"Three more to go," Dia said.

"Get ready," Andrew called as he maneuvered his craft with the others. As he shot forward, the others didnít."

"My flight controls arenít responding," said Nezrine.

"Mine either," piped up Miran.

"I donít think anyoneís are," Grin said.

Andrew looked over his shoulder to see the X-wings changing course. Then it suddenly hit him. "Your astromechs!" he called in horror. "Check your astromechs! Are their eye sockets red?!"

"Dobber, whatís wrong?" Jalb asked over the comm.

Dia turned and checked her astromechs dome. Its light was indeed red. "Mine is!" she called, slightly panicked. "What do we do?"

"Eject!" Andrew called as he shot at the freighter. "Eject now!"

Reaching to pull for her ejecting lever, Dia held her breath and pulled. Nothing happened. She pulled again. And again. "Itís not responding!" she called.

It was then that she saw four words appear on her screen from her astromech.

Long live the Empire, they read.

No! thought Andrew as the freighter exploded. No! No! No!

"This is Captain Quelle," came a voice over the comm as the . "All New Republic forces engage the Monarch and its supporting ships!" The looming mass of the Vigilant, flanked by the Regis and Blackhawk, began moving into position, firing away at the Monarch. The rest of the support ships, led by the Frigate Rehzínor, made their way to the Interdictor and light cruisers, which was several klicks out. Half of the Vigilantís remaining fighter screen went with it for support.

"Rogue Squadron X-wings, head back for the hangar now."

"Jalb!" Andrew called. "They canít! Theyíre being taken over! What do we do?"

"Calm down, Three," Jalb said.

"Theyíre sitting ducks!"

"Iím working on it," Jalb said tersely. "Vigilant, Rogue Leader. X-wings have been compromised. Requesting immediate support from Buccaneer Y-wings."

"Negative, Rogue Leader. Buccaneer is occupied with the Monarch and Black Flame."

"Sabre Squadron?" Jalb asked.

"Combat zone is too hot," came the reply.

"Andrew," Dia called, "weíre being directed towards the Star Destroyer."

Fear sank into his stomach as he swung around, firing shots at the second-last freighter. It began to explode in flames. For the first time in his life, he didnít know what to do. "Iíll be right there," he said, throwing full power to his engines.

Calls for help were going up from all the remaining recruits now.

"Lead, Six," said Thanatos. "Any chance we can destroy the astromechs with lasers?"

"Too dangerous," Jalb said. "We risk hitting the cockpit, or worse."

"We have to do something," Andrew said as he raced towards the X-wings. They had begun to spread apart now in single file, flying as if controlled by their pilots. Some headed down underneath the Star Destroyer. Others curved up and across its bow. The ones above the Star Destroyer began maneuvering as if to engage the TIEs swarming the Star Destroyer, but didnít end up firing.

"All Rogue A-wings," Jalb said, "engage those TIEs. Keep them from harming the X-wings!"

***

Seeing no other option as the TIEs swarmed around his moving craft, Grixx reached for his sidearm. Pulling it out of his holster, he turned and pointed it at the rear window, directly at the astromech.

"No way are they capturing me," he said coldly.

Holding his breath, he fired several shots. They went through the window, causing the cabin to begin depressurizing. He could feel the coldness of space beginning to affect him. But it worked. His astromech howled and then shut off as the glowing holes in its dome glowed hot orange and began to cool.

Reaching for his ejecting lever, he pulled it -- and shot free from his craft.

***

"Grixx is EVA," said Thanatos.

"Vigilant, Rogue Leader. We have a pilot down, pilot down, pilot down. Needs immediate S&R recovery."

"Stand by, Rogue Leader," came the response.

"That last freighter is nearing the hangar," Bulldog said as he shot up from the underside of the Star Destroyer. "We need to take it out."

"Three, get on it," Jalb said.

"But the others--," Andrew began.

"Do it, Three!"

His chest tightening, he did the only thing he could think of. He closed his S-foils.

"Three, what are you doing?!" Jalb asked incredulously.

"Trying something," he said, moving towards Diaís X-wing. It was half-way to the hangar, with the other two X-wings in front of her. Starfighters and laser fire shot out in every direction around them. Sliding in next to her, he saw her looking at him from her cockpit window. "Hold on," he said, panic starting to rise in him.

"Donít do anything stupid," she called.

"You know me," he said with a short laugh. Pulling up gently so that he was slightly above her, he began sliding his craft right. His S-foils scraped across the back of her hull, missing the astromech.

"Three," called Jalb, "donít do it. Focus on your objective. Thatís an order."

"I-I can make it," he said, trying again and again. He got it on the fourth try, and the astromechs dome separated from its body.

"Watch out!" exclaimed Dia.

Ahead of him, he saw the TIE Fighter on approach. It fired several laser blasts as he tried to move away. One set hit Diaís craft, the rest made their way for him. His shields melting, he felt his craft shake violently as a pair hit his front hull. His windshield immediately developed a large crack in it.

Red laser fire melted the TIE as Jalb streaked by.

And all Andrew could do was run.

***

"How much longer until the shields are down?" Quelle asked as turbolaser batteries hammered away at the hull of the Vigilant.

"Itís going to be close, sir," the tactical officer called. "Their firepower is stronger, and our shields wonít last much longer."

"Activate the ion batteries," he said. "I want us to hammer them with as many broadside salvos as we can give them. Have the Y-wings and B-wings target critical systems."

"Aye, sir!"

"Sir!" called another officer to his left. "Look!"

Swiveling in his chair, he saw what was called out to him. A handful of the recruit X-wings were swerving and banking along the bow of the Star Destroyer, as if they were puppets on strings. Then, the TIEs in the area began cutting them down one by one.

"By the Force," he said in horror.

He heard the screams over the comm system.

***

Dammit! thought Jalb as he looked on in horror, the X-wings shattering into flames and debris. This isnít happening, canít be happening again!

"Boss, that freighterís going to dock any minute now. What do we do?" asked Hellcat.

"Does anyone have any missiles left?" Jalb asked. A string of negatives came over the comm channel. "Then keep on those TIEs. We have to clear Three a path."

Chapter 27

Andrew spun his X-wing away from the onslaught of green laser fire pouring towards him. The first TIE Fighter screamed past him. Its wingman was not so lucky. As Andrew squeezed the trigger, scarlet red laser bolts shot forth towards their target. Two of them connected with the second TIE Fighter, and as Andrew continued to race onward it exploded into a ball of fiery orange gas. As part of the explosion cloud engulfed his fighter craft, a pair of laser bolts rocked his ship from behind. His artoo unit gave a shrill howl as a message sprung up on the computer screen.

TIE Interceptor! read the message.

"Dammit," he muttered as he rebalanced his rear deflector shields and poured his remaining laser energy into them. Placing his left hand on his throttle, he pushed it forwards and began weaving his craft to avoid further fire. He lurched back in his seat as his X-wing accelerated to its maximum speed. Through the cracked windshield of his cockpit, he could see the domineering white figure of the Monarch. A storm of green fire lanced out in every direction from its turbolaser batteries, chasing other starfighters or firing at the other cruisers nearby.

"Andrew," came Diaís voice over his headset, "Iím caught in the Monarchís tractor beam. Ejection system is down. Other systems not responding. Theyíre pulling me in!"

"Three," came another stern voice over his radio. It was Jalb. "Youíre the only one with warheads left. Destroy the target!"

Twisting his X-wing right, barely avoiding another stream of laser fire from his pursuer, he gave a quick glance at his display. One proton torpedo remained in his arsenal. Thumbing his missile control switch, he armed it.

"Andrew," Dia cried, "help!"

"Three," barked Jalb, "take the shot or youíll never make it with us!"

As the tone of his targeting computer hummed to attempt a lock, he twisted left, then right again. He could see the profile of her X-wing growing closer as he raced towards her, and could only watch it being pulled into the gaping maw that was the Star Destroyerís main hangar. He knew he had an impossible choice to make.

A twisted knot clenched his stomach, and he felt his chest tighten. He made the only choice that he could. Feeling a lump beginning to form in his throat, he fought back tears.

"Do it now, Three!!"

"Andrew!!"

"Iím sorry, Dia," he managed to choke out as he closed ground on his target. The massive shape of the Star Destroyer filled most of his view now. Several green laser blasts began making their way toward him, and he re-balanced his shields once more. A laser blast from the Interceptor hit him from behind, rocking his ship again. "I have to do this."

"I know," she said sadly after a moment. "Do it. I love you."

Rolling his fighter, he squeezed the trigger and dove down and away. The last torpedo lanced forward towards its target.

"I love you too," he replied. Glancing quickly over his left shoulder, he saw the torpedoís blue-streaked profile connect with its target, causing it to erupt into a ball of flame.

And as his X-wing shot away from the underside of the Star Destroyer, TIE Interceptor still in pursuit, he knew that she was gone.

"Nice shot, Three," called Thanatos over the radio.

But Andrew didnít respond. Instead, he forced his X-wing into a drift. Spinning around, he turned to face the TIE Interceptor pursuing him. He squeezed the trigger and held it as green laser fire screeched towards him.

He didnít know how, but he survived the impacts. "Hull at twenty-four percent," he choked out, slipping away from the Star Destroyer.

"Copy, Three," Jalb said. "Head on home."

"Shields are down," called one of the Buccaneer pilots, "beginning attack runs on the targeting system and shield generators."

Andrew saw the Y-wings begin pounding away at their targets as he circled around to the Vigilantís hangar. Before he entered, he heard the call over the radio that the Interdictor was in full retreat. The other Imperial ships began making their way soon after.

Landing his X-wing, he sat in the canopy, taking in what had just happened. His flight crew had to force the canopy open.

"Major Dobson," said a flight crew member as he climbed the ladder. "Major Dobson, are you alright?"

Andrew slowly turned his head to face the technician.

"Do you need medical attention, sir?" he asked.

"No," was the only word he could reply. Climbing out of the X-wing, he shakily made his way down the ladder, and collapsed to the deck once he reached the bottom, sobbing uncontrollably.

***

Later that afternoon, he found himself sitting in Jalbís dimly lit office, despondent. Thanatos sat beside him; Jalb sat behind his desk. One could cut the tension in the air with a knife.

"Would you like some more time to think about it?" Jalb asked.

"You donít have to give an answer right away," Thanatos. "Itís perfectly fine to take some time to think about it. Especially given--"

Jalb cleared his throat.

"Recent events," Thanatos finished.

Andrew stared at the data pad in front of him. Everything seemed to blur together. Finally, he looked up. His mouth felt dry.

"If I do this," Andrew said hoarsely, fighting back another wave of tears, "will we get them back? Get her back?" he asked.

Jalb glanced at Thanatos, then back to him. "I canít make that promise," Jalb said. "But I assure you, weíll do everything in our power once Major Murg gets his intel. And believe me, he is working away at it right now."

Andrew stared down at the datapad. He thought back to his encounter with his dear professor all those years ago, during the early days of the Rebel Alliance. What choice did he have then? And as a member of the fledgling New Republic, what choice did he have now?

"If we find her," he said quietly, "Iím going to need your help."

"Of course," Jalb said with a nod. "Anything for a fellow Rogue."

He stared at the text in front of him one last time. Raising his right hand, he pressed his thumb against the screen and signed his life away to Rogue Squadron.

***

Jalb walked into the medical bay half an hour later, data pad in hand. Thanatos trailed behind him. Grixx lay in one of the recovery beds, an oxygen mask wrapped around his face.

"Youíre looking well, all things expected," Jalb said.

Grixx titled his head to glare at Jalb and Thanatos.

"We have an offer for you," he said, holding out the data pad. "Donít feel the need to accept right away. Think of it as more of something to consider."

Grixx took hold of the data pad -- and hurled it across the room as hard as he could. The 2-1B medical droid spun in alarm and surprise as a tray toppled over.

"Get out," Grixx said coldly, his eyes burning with hatred.

Reynolds and Thanatos left without saying another word.

Chapter 28

[Vigilant Lounge -- 1800 hours]

"To friends," said Jalb as he raised his drink. "May the lucky stars watch over them, and guide those who are no longer with us to safe harbor."

"To friends," chimed in most of the other Rogues seated around the table as they raised their glasses in unison.

The mood amongst them was dour despite the success of their mission. Bulldog had stumbled off to see Iggy at the bar for yet another refill. Andrew sat in his seat, a pensive mood across his face as he nursed his drink. The others exchanged glances.

Thanatos was the first to speak up. "So Ö how does it feel to finally make Rogue Squadron?" he asked.

Andrew sat there in silence.

"Major?" Thanatos asked again.

"Hmm?" Andrew asked, looking up to meet his face.

"I asked you how it feels to be a Rogue now."

Andrew paused for a moment, considering his response. "It feels," he began, a lump in his throat. "It feels...."

A commotion broke out on the other side of the room. "Hey!" came a voice across the room. "Turn the sound up!"

The Rogues turned to look at where the noise was coming from. A group of other pilots and personnel had clustered around the main holovid projector that ran broadcasts from the Holonet. A familiar voice filled the room.

"Citizens of the Galactic Empire," said Captain Gaspra as her face came into view. The background was a clear indication that she was standing in the hangar of her Star Destroyer. "Earlier today, a task force from the reprehensible New Republic engaged in combat with loyal Imperial Forces in a vain effort to wrest stability from the galaxy."

"Whatís she going on about?" asked Lock as Andrew got up out of his seat and made his way towards the group. One by one the rest of the Rogues followed.

"As evidence of their cruel and cowardly ways, Iíd like to present to you an account from that engagement." Images flashed on the screen of groups of people -- women, young children, families, refugees -- boarding freighters. The image cut to twelve freighters making their way through space towards a Star Destroyer.

"Thatís the Monarch," said Hellcat, "and the freighters we engaged earlier."

The holovid images shifted to pairs of X-wings making attack runs with lasers and torpedoes against the freighters. "As you can see, New Republic forces -- specifically, Rogue Squadron -- attacked a group of civilian transports that were en route to the Monarch for supplies and medical attention after their colony was attacked by piratesÖ.

"Thatís a lie if there ever was one," muttered Jasted before someone told him to hush.

"As you can witness here, the ruthless New Republic fighters destroyed every civilian freighter bound to receive aidÖ" Images flashed across the screen of the freighters buckling under attack runs from the X-wings. Distress calls from the freighters, their captains pleading for help, that they were defenseless, before they were cut short. Particular emphasis was placed on Andrewís attack run on the final freighter. The holovid replayed the explosion of that freighter from different angles as his final proton torpedo connected with it.

"Kriffing liars!" said someone nearby.

"Those freighters were supposed to have biochemical weapons Ö werenít they?" asked Andrew earnestly as he turned to face Reynolds. "Werenít they?"

Reynolds gave a quiet nod.

His stomach churned with guilt, knowing that he had participated in the slaughter of innocent civilians.

A handful of pilots from Spectre and Corsair Squadrons had joined them now, having just entered the lounge. "Whatís going on?" asked one of them. Again, they were told to be quiet.

"While the freighters were regrettably destroyed," continued Gaspra, "our valiant TIE Fighter pilots were able to destroy or drive off a number of the attackers from their reprehensible missionÖ." Images washed across the screen now from a variety of angles -- some from the Star Destroyer, others from TIE pilots -- as the X-wings were mercilessly cut down one by one.

Each exploding starfighter felt like a stab going through Andrewís chest. His friends. His comrades. Over and over the X-wings exploded.

"A handful of the pilots were also captured during the engagementÖ." The camera shifted to show three pilots in their flight suits, handcuffed with their arms behind their backs. Their helmets and essential support gear were missing. Murmurs immediately spilled through the crowd in the Lounge.

There, on their knees, were Shiz, Grin, Ö and Dia.

They looked like theyíd already been put through a rigorous interrogation process. Shiz had a bruise under one of his eyes, as well as other bruise marks on his face. The others werenít much better. Andrewís blood began to boil, and he clenched his right hand into a fist.

"To answer for their crimes," said Gaspra, moving into full view from the left of the camera frame, "these individuals have already stood trial and been found guilty of sedition, rebellion, treason Ö and murder. It is my honour," continued Gaspra as she walked to her left, the camera following her, "to broadcast their public execution." The camera stopped with Gaspra in front of a guillotine-like device that had been set up in the Imperial hangar bay. "Effectively immediately."

Gasps and cries of horror rose up from the crowd of onlookers.

"Change the channel," barked Jalb. "Change it now!"

Someone near the console pressed the button several times to switch it to several other stations Ö but the same image kept on coming up.

"They must be broadcasting on the entire Holonet somehow," said Thanatos.

Shiz was the first one to be escorted to the contraption by two stormtroopers. He was silent as tears streamed down his face. He didnít fight. Didnít struggle. Just accepted his fate as the troopers guided him down and placed his body in the headframe.

Gaspra walked over to Shiz slowly, bent down, and used her hand to prop his chin up so that he was somewhat looking at the camera. "Any last words, traitor?" asked Gaspra.

The only noise that Shiz could make was to let out a sob.

"Very well then," she said, letting go of his chin and walking away. "Execute him."

The electric wire of the guillotine activated, glowing a hot red. As the blade raced down, it was over within seconds.

A gasp of shock rose from the crowd as Shizís head fell into the basket below. Silence filled the room.

A scream erupted off-camera. The camera shifted to show Grin standing up on his feet, his arms moving behind his back. As they broke free, the restraining cuffs flying off to the side, he grabbed hold of the nearest stormtrooper and flung him into a group of stormtroopers lined up nearby. They fell like bowling pins. He grabbed a second stormtrooper and punched him, sending him flying several feet in the other direction.

"Stop him!" called one of the senior stormtroopers.

Grin began to grapple with a third stormtrooper, managing to tear his blaster away. He turned to fire at an unflinching Gaspra, who was standing unprotected.

A female stormtrooper's voice gave the order to fire.

Grin went down without firing a shot, seven blaster shots riddling his body from different angles. He hit the deck plating with a thud. His body sighed, and he was gone.

"Get him out of here," said the lead stormtrooper.

The crowd watched as four stormtroopers dragged him away.

"Those bastards," cursed Gremlin from behind them.

Dia was the last to be brought up.

Bulldog decided to finally join in with watching. "Hey-y, whatcha all watching?" he slurred, drink in hand. "Hey Dobber, isnít that your hot girlfriend?"

Andrew shot him a dirty, pained look.

"Come on, buddy," said Jasted, quickly wrapping an arm around Bulldogís shoulder. "Letís go somewhere else."

Bulldog gave a mild complaint of wanting to watch, but that too faded as he was ushered out of the room.

Tears began to form in Andrewís eyes as she was lowered to where the headrest was. Gaspra walked over to her and bent over. She gently took her chin and lifted her head up.

Andrew felt a heavy but gentle hand fall on his shoulder. It was Jalb.

"I donít think you should watch this," he said quietly. But it was too late. He couldnít look away.

"Youíve especially been a thorn in my side, Miss Tann. Are you ready to pay for your crimes?"

"Go to hell you bitch!" Dia spat out between clenched teeth.

"No, dear," she said, taking her other hand to pat Diaís cheek. "Thatís reserved for you." Gaspra let go and walked away. "Any last words?"

Diaís head rose slightly. Tears spilled down her bruised cheeks. "If youíre watching this -- and I hope youíre not -- but if you are Ö Iíve never been happier than when Iíve been with you. I love you."

"No," Andrew whimpered. Tears began blinding his vision.

"Come on," insisted Jalb, giving him a hard tug. But he didnít move.

"Execute," said Gaspra with cold finality as she turned to look at the camera with a wry smile.

The blade rushed down.

Andrew collapsed to his knees as Diaís head fell in the basket.

The camera shifted to Gaspra one final time. "Long live the Empire," she said before the feed ended.

"NO!" Andrew said with a heavy sob. "No Ö no! Ö no!... NO!"

"Come on, mate," said Jalb softly. "We have to go."

"IÖ," Andrew said between sobs. "IÖ they Ö they were ... she Ö she Ö sheísÖ." Andrew felt a pair of hands lift him up from each side under his shoulders. Jalb and Thanatos had stepped in to lift him up. No one else said a word as they walked away, but he could feel their eyes watching as they left.

"I know, mate," Jalb said quietly as Andrew was led away, sobbing. "I know."

[Officerís Briefing Room]

Late into the evening, the senior officers aboard the Vigilant sat quietly around the table. Captain Quelle half sat, half slouched in his chair at an angle against the table.

"How much of what Gaspra broadcasted was true?" he asked, a knuckled fist propping up his head.

All eyes turned to Major Murg. "From what we have been able to analyze after the fact," he said, "all of it."

"And your source confirms all of this?"

"The source does."

"So," said the Captain slowly. "What went wrong?"

"All the intel we had before the mission was correct," continued Murg. "The problem appeared to lie with how the details were changed at the last moment. Not to mention the falsified transmissions from the freighters."

"Go on," said Quelle.

"The freighters were intended to head to the base and pick up the cargo loads of biochemical weapons," he said matter of factly. "Where the details changed was the scheduling of their flight path. The freighters were intended to rendezvous with the Monarch first with the civilians, then head to the planet to pick up their cargo and complete their mission."

"Which we never saw or knew about, given the Rogueís exit point from hyperspace," said Commander Oamb, the Sullusan executive officer of the Vigilant.

"Exactly," continued Murg. "Everything would have looked right to our timetable. But as we now know, that information was not entirely true."

"Which means what, exactly?" asked someone else.

"That either we were fed faulty information," said Murg, "or Gaspra set us up. And given what happened with the astromechs, it would seem her connections run deep."

The officers exchanged glances around the table. Quelle was the first to speak up again.

"The witch played her cards well, and there are now too many coincidences," he said.

"Is it possible we have a spy on board?" Admiral Tolden asked.

"Unlikely, but not impossible," said Murg.

"This changes everything," said Quelle. He stood up from his chair and leaned against the table, his palms flat, and met the eyes of everyone in the room. "Not only have we suffered a black mark on our name for the New Republic, we are potentially compromised. I want a full review of our security details, as well as a new set of standards in place."

"That could take days, if not weeks, sir," replied Oamb.

"It will," he said with a sigh, "but Iíd rather not have anything like this happen again. Weíll meet again tomorrow. In the meantime, Major Murg and I have a full debriefing to give to High Command. Dismissed."

[Private Quarters -- Dia Tann]

Andrew sat alone on the stool in Diaís quarters. The cleaning crew had come along to retrieve her piloting gear and effects, but had left her few personal belongings when he and BD-B2 had shown up. He told them he would take care of the rest. That had been almost an hour ago.

On the desk in front of him was a small box. BD-B2 stood on the desk, his head hung low. He gave a low chirp, then a heavy sigh. The few trinkets that were left he had placed into the box. The box with the engagement ring. The half-full perfume bottle. A small holo puck with pictures of them. There was also her unfinished Kalikori. Heíd have to remember to return that to the family. Maybe Suli would be able to take it, if he could ever get it to her. The only other item on the desk was a second holo puck. The one she had given him.

The door behind him hissed open. He didnít immediately turn around to see who it was.

"Hello, Dobber," came Gremlinís voice. "We, uh, hope weíre not disturbing you. May we come in?"

He never answered them. He heard the sound of several pairs of flight boots enter the room, and the door closed.

"We also wanted to see how you are doing," she continued. "But if this isnít a good timeÖ."

Picking up the second holo puck, he slowly swiveled around on the stool to face them. With Gremlin were Talon, Syntax, Dragon, and Jalb. They stared quietly at him, waiting for him to say something. Anything.

Instead, he held the puck up in his hand and activated it. The familiar blue-clad image of Dia sprung to life in front of all of them. She was maybe six or eight inches tall, but her voice was clear and crisp.

"Andrew," the recording began. "I know that scheduling has prevented us from spending time together this last little while. And I left you hanging, waiting for a response after your proposal. You canít imagine how much I want to say this to you in person, but I still want you to know. My answer is Ö yes. Yes, I will marry you!"

Fresh tears began to form in his eyes. The other pilots looked on with sorrowful glances as the recording continued.

"I canít wait to start the next chapter in our lives together. You should have heard Auntie Suli when I told her! I know sheíll have a field day with this, and you know what she can be like.

"Thereís also something Iíve been meaning to tell youÖ" she said as she placed her hands on her belly. The image shifted. While her voice continued, the new image was that of an ultrasound. A small fetus was pictured, and the gentle rhythm of a heartbeat filled the room.

"Iím pregnant!"

A stream of tears flowed freely from his eyes, and he used his free sleeve to wipe his nose and tears away to little effect. The image shifted back to her.

"I guess shore leave left us with one final surprise we werenít expecting. I know this must come as a shock, but I canít wait for us to meet this little bundle of joy." The image changed back to her. "You always knew how to make a girl feel extra special. And I wouldnít be the woman I am today without your constant love and support. Even if you are a nerfherder sometimes. Love you," she finished with a wink. "Iíll see you soon."

The hologram faded away. A deathly silence filled the room. He turned and held out his arm for a despondent BD-B2 to climb up it, resting on his shoulder. He turned to face them again, stood up, and took a few steps forward. They didnít move, initially.

"If you donít mind," he said quietly, tears still streaming down his face, "Iíd like to be alone for a while."

Gremlin, Talon, and the others did their best to step aside and make way.

This left Jalb as the only obstacle in his path. "Andrew," began Jalb as Andrew stepped up to him, "if there is anythingÖ."

"Lieutenant Colonel," Andrew interrupted quietly. He fought to hold back a sob, but his voice quivered. "I was asked last night what it feels like to be a member of Rogue Squadron."

Jalb closed his mouth and looked at him silently.

"The one thing that I realize now, after all the choices I have made to this point, is this: if I had never made the choice to become a member of Rogue Squadron, she would still be alive right now." Tears began to roll down his cheeks as he blinked. "Sheís dead because of me," he spat.

"Andrew," said Jalb, trying to extend a hand to rest it on his shoulder. Andrew took a step back, Jalbís reach just falling short.

"Permission to be dismissed Ö sir," Andrew choked out, meeting Jalbís eyes intently.

Jalb hesitated for a moment, then withdrew his arm, gave a polite nod, and took a step back to make room for the grieving man.

Andrew slid past him, the door opening. Io was waiting, and gave a low whistle as they left. The door hissed shut behind him.

The pilots exchanged sullen glances in the otherwise empty, sterile white room. No one said a word.

***

Grixx stared at the nine coffins in the hangar as the funeral ceremony ended the next day. Each coffin was draped in the flag of the New Republic. A hologram of the face of each pilot projected from behind the head of each coffin. Their faces were blank. Emotionless. And yet he still felt their gaze pierce him.

Ri. Nezrine. Nirobi. Miran. Grin. Shiz. Dia.

Lyn.

He watched as squads of troopers marched in formation near the coffins, then moved to stand on either side of them. Lifting them up, they carried the coffins on their shoulders, moving slowly towards the transport that would bring the coffins -- even if there were no remains -- back to their homeworlds and families. Members of the crew of Renegade Wing watched on.

"When I first joined Dynamo," he began quietly, "my squadron was ambushed in the Wadiri Rift, a dangerous part of space with severe ion storms. We were escorting a convoy of much needed supplies to a Rebel base. Two Victory-class Star Destroyers dropped out of hyperspace on top of us, and launched TIEs quicker than Iíve ever seen. It turned into absolute chaos within seconds.

"The OC was the first to die after he ordered the freighters to make a break for the nebula. That left me in command of the entire flight group. We're outnumbered almost four-to-one -- but somehow, we hold our own. Keep the freighters protected as best we can.

"So I order them to change course and head to the hyperspace point, which in reality is much safer than navigating a volatile nebula full of ion storms that will rip them apart faster than those VSDs can. I know many of them wonít make it, but I think to myself: if even one or two gets through, thatís better than nothing.

"While all of this is happening, our fighters are getting picked off one by one. Pilots began to panic. They donít evade fast enough. Donít check their six often enough. Or wander too far away from the perimeter and get cut down. Soon, weíre down to two freighters and three pilots. But weíre almost to the hyper point.

"Suddenly, six squints cut one of the freighters to shreds. Weíre seconds away from the hyper point, and I give the order to close S-foils and make the jump. But, Dynamo Five doesnít listen. He doesnít listen to my orders. He wants revenge, so he turns to face them -- and dies almost instantly.

"The rest of us get away. We make it to the base, one freighter and two X-wings out of an entire convoy and fighter support.

"But you know what the real kicker is? I flew back to that area a week later while out on patrol. Decided to check the nebula so I could stop second-guessing myself. Used the same coordinates and flight path that my squadron leader had given. Had we stayed on that course, it would have led to a safe secret passageway through the nebula. And all that time I flew through the nebula unharmed, my commanderís voice ran through my head: ĎDo what I say and youíll live.í Suffice to say, Iíve lived by those words as OC of Dynamo.

"Lyn was the first person I ever told about my history with Dynamo Squadron," Grixx to his neighbour. "For a brief moment, I thought I was happy with her. She had this way of seeing through me. Of making me feel something. But after yesterday, after she didnít listen, I realized that commanding Dynamo is where I really belong. Itís the one thing I can control, even if I am emotionless."

Grixx turned to face his neighbour.

"You joined Rogue Squadron, didnít you?" he asked Andrew.

"Yes," Andrew said solemnly after a few seconds.

"Youíre a damned fool," Grixx said.

Andrew looked up to face him, his eyes red from tears. "You have no idea what I lost," he replied tersely. "You donít get to lecture me."

As the other Rogues moved forward, Andrew joined them. They moved to either side of Diaís coffin. Lifting it up and onto their shoulders, they moved as one as her empty coffin was loaded onto the transport.

Epilogue

[ISD Monarch]

"I must say, Captain Gaspra," said Barand as his holographic face flickered from the projector. "Your plan went off without a hitch. I am impressed. You put those automated TIE Fighters to good use alongside your regular pilots. A shame about the One-Sixty-Fifth, though."

"Thank you, Commodore Barand," Gaspra said with a slight nod as she sat behind her desk. "It is a shame, but one that I believe will pay off in the long run. I must also thank you as well for committing the time and resources to pull such a feat off."

"Yes," mused Barand. "Itís unlikely weíll be able to pull the same trick twice. The Vigilant is more than likely reviewing and revising their security measures as we speak."

"As would any ship in a professional military," countered Gaspra. Her eyes narrowed. "And what of the New Republicís response?"

Barand gave a contemplative look. "The entire thing has been condemned by the New Republic, of course. But with the freighters destroyed and civilians killed, the damage has been done. Weíve already seen an increase from our supporters, or those who were on the fence -- those who value security over terrorism."

A small smile spread across Gaspraís face. "This is good news," she said. "And our next move?"

"For now youíll report back to your system for repairs and resupply. From there, we can begin to plan our next move."

"Very well, Commodore. I look forward to it. Gaspra out."

The holographic face disappeared. She rose out of her chair and left the room, making her way towards the bridge.

"Helm," she said when she arrived. "Set course for home. Engage hyperspace when the coordinates are calculated."

"Yes, Captain," said the officer in the crew pit below her.

She stopped at the window. Watched as the stars morphed into the swirling blue tunnel. And smiled, confident with her latest victory over the New Republic.

[The End]