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By: Bulldog
Contributions by Lock and Wolf

CRS Vigilant Ready Room

It had been an interesting week since the food poisoning incident that had laid up many Corsair squadron pilots as well as Bulldog, Jalb, and Angel. After the bug had run its course and the offender was caught and punished via transfer and demotion, the pilots on the ship were still quite wary of the mess hall. The few brave souls that ventured back into the mess were treated to impeccable meals by the thoroughly embarrassed kitchen staff, but many personnel were taking a wait and see approach.

The Buccaneers made it a point to avoid the mess hall at all costs, even though the likely culprit was no longer a threat. As such, they once again gathered for a haphazard meal of pre-packaged foods that they swapped and shared on the fly to make things interesting. They sat in the Ready Room in relative comfort as they spread out the mismatched bounty before them, all pausing a respectable amount of time before the chaos of what they'd quickly deemed "the choosing" began.

Flight Officer Dion "Loth-Cat" Ninx's eyes narrowed as they darted from mystery package to can, and back to another opaque bag across the table. It was clear to all in attendance that the youth was attempting to utilize their inexplicable intuition to grab the best option, and all seemed to watch where their eyes lingered in an effort to steal what they thought they were identifying as the most desirable meal choice. The youth was also naive enough to not realize that their direct and trusting nature was easy to read, and their choice was likely to be swiped by Flight Officer Shirou "Crane" Origami, who seemed to be closest to the choice Loth-Cat had mentally made and visibly telegraphed.

Captain Mitch A. "Rev" Ri'chard, likewise, seemed to be making his selection before the choosing had begun. Flanking him were Flight Officers Anton "Ant" Whitemont and Glenn "Wolvinator" Ahdee'khee as they both planned to try and steal the meal the lucky veteran was looking for. It was known that Rev and Loth-Cat had the best luck, so the rest of the rank and file learned quickly to pay attention to their eyes in hopes of improving their own meal choices. Unlike Loth-Cat, Rev was wily enough to play the game and attempt to fake out those that would try and grab his desired target. As such, his eyes lingered on what appeared to be an old style MRE package that was sure to contain powdered eggs despite the label being worn off through the sands of time.

Captain Andy "Bulldog" Clark and Major Chris "Animal" Stephen restrained themselves with herculean effort. Both had opted to join their pilots in solidarity despite having access to the officer's mess, and both knew exactly what they were missing today due to the in-your-face menu pop-ups that arrived in their inboxes daily. Today was supposed to be a treat: a nerf filet wrapped in tail-ring bacon and smothered in herbs, butters, and spices. Still, they knew what true leadership meant to a younger squadron, and they continued to forgo better caloric options in order to eat the leftovers from their subordinates.

With an innate feeling of the room, all pilots seemed to move at once. As expected, Crane snagged the meal Loth-Cat had obviously desired, eliciting a sharp whine from the youth. Ant and Wolvinator both grabbed the package that they thought Rev had desired, and fought a determined tug of war over the meal while Rev gingerly picked up the actual object of his desire. 1st Lt. Kyle "Gnoizic" Mandal shrugged and grabbed the item closest to him, while Ant somehow managed to out-leverage his larger friend and tear the package free, almost falling to his backside in the process. Wolvinator cursed loudly, but also snickered at his friend for having almost toppled over. After another frantic search with his eyes, he closed them and fumbled around blindly until his hands fell across one of the opaque bagged meals. 1st Lt. Corell "Foo" Davis, aloof, seemed to not really care what he got in the free-for-all and just picked up the item in front of himself with an air of defeat already on his face.

Loth-Cat slumped their shoulders as they clearly didn't know which way to decide now, having all of their options disappear while they were stunned by Crane's quick thievery. The pickings were slim at this point. Another mystery MRE, a bagged meal, and an old looking ration that seemed to predate all of their tenures in the Rebellion.

Animal smiled kindly, but also had a mischievous twinkle in his eye as he clearly had a preference. He picked the ancient ration up in his hands and handed it to Loth-Cat. "Here, Ninx, try this one. I've heard many of these rations are extremely good, which is why we haven't had any yet during our meals this week." He sealed the clear deception with a surreptitious wink in Bulldog's direction.

Bulldog suppressed a scoff, as he knew Animal knew exactly the reason why these rations hadn't shown up yet. Bulldog had told him before the meal today that the intimidating Lamproid supply officer was putting his foot down on the Buccaneer raids on his backlogged stock. Bulldog had attempted to push back, but the rumors of Command Master Chief Petty Officer Nake Iwuzere dealing with impolite personnel via poisonous tail stopped him cold. He meekly accepted what was offered in their trade and nearly sprinted away at top speed.

Loth-Cat graciously accepted the old ration while Animal quickly grabbed the newer packaged meal for himself and tore into it with relish. Apparently it had been one of the chipped nerf packages, and somehow Animal had seen some marking of the contents and swiped it at all costs.

Bulldog eyed the last remaining item on the table: one of the opaque meal bags. He picked it up and began to open it, seeing some sort of wrapped deli-meat sandwich and bag of chips. His mouth watered as he was about to reach in and tear into the bounty with relish, but he paused as Loth-Cat caught his eye from his peripheral vision.

The naive youth seemed lost, unsure if they'd been duped or if their OC had done them a favor. After a moment of silent debate, they pulled out their multi-tool and began to deploy the can opening attachment with clear unfamiliarity.

Bulldog's shoulders slumped, knowing what had to be done. Wordlessly, he put his free hand on Loth-Cat's hand to stop them. Looking into their eyes, he handed over his bagged meal and took the ancient ration in return.

"Uh, thanks?"

Bulldog smiled wanly. "Don't mention it, kid." He paused a moment to say a silent prayer, and then tore open the early Rebellion-era ration can. Immediately, he gagged as the cloying smell of tinned "meat" coated his sinuses and threatened to suffocate him. The Lamproid had clearly either hidden the rest of his better fare or just flat out decided to poison the pesky Buccaneers for the temerity of bartering for this many of his extra foodstuffs. "Oh, phewwwwwwwieeeeuuuuu."

Gnoizic chuckled and immediately pulled his Mandalorian visor down to protect his own sense of smell from the offending can. As he did so, something caught his eye out of his peripheral vision. Turning his head and zooming his visor in slightly, his heart caught in his throat. "Loth-Cat, are those barbecue chips in a Gep's Grill package?"

Loth-Cat looked down at their hands at the bag of chips they'd pulled from their meal bag. Turning it over in their hand, they examined the label closely. A logo containing two stylized Whiphids stared back at him. "Yes, yes it is. Why-?"

Gnoizic's hand shot out and grasped for the chips out of uncontrolled reflex driven by intense desire. Loth-Cat in turn twisted their body to shield the chips from their squadmate, in the process accidentally launching the bag of chips across the room.

All in attendance watched the bag of chips tumble lazily through the air as they arced back to the deck. They landed just in front of one of the couches, and then tumbled underneath the worn piece of furniture that had seen heavy use since Talon and Gremlin had installed it during their top secret renovation project. Out of all of the pieces meant for lounging, this happened to be the only "old" couch with actual legs and clearance between the bottom lip of the front and the floor. And it just so happened to be high enough to admit the bag of contested chips to slide far into the recesses underneath.

"Uncool!" Loth-Cat whined as they walked toward the chips' last known location, gripping their remaining food in the meal bag tightly to fend off any more chicanery. As they approached the old couch, they got to their hands and knees on the ground and put the side of their head to the cold deck, recoiling slightly in shock at the nearly-freezing metallic deck on their cheek. Shaking off a shiver, they forced their head down and strained to see any sign of the elusive snack.

Bulldog sent a stiff back-handed swipe in Gnoizic's direction, connecting with his shoulder enough to force the other pilot to audibly wince.

"I'm sorry!" Gnoizic blurted out hurriedly. "I don't know what came over me. The moment I saw those two hairy aliens on the bag I just lost control of my arm!"

"I'm not familiar with them?" Foo asked while munching on his sandwich.

"They're not even all that great if I recall," Gnoizic replied sheepishly. "Just had an overwhelming urge to reach out for them."

"Past memory maybe?" Animal asked as he dug into his meal with relative relish.

Gnoizic shrugged. "Maybe? I really can't remember. Hey, Loth-Cat, I'm truly sorry."

"S'okay," Loth-Cat grunted as they reached an arm blindly under the couch and felt around for their chips. Their hand found nothing but dust bunnies long ignored by the sweepers and other cleaning crew.

"You sure it's not the hidden prize in every bag?" Rev asked gruffly, grinning at the apparent stupidity of that thought.

Gnoizic snapped his fingers. "YES! That's it! I remember getting a neat decoder ring out of a bag as a kid back in Jurno's shop!" Once again, his body appeared to move without his permission as he took a quick step toward the area the chips had been lost in.

"Stop him!" Bulldog shouted as he dove for the fast Mandalorian, missing completely and grasping nothing but air. He landed on the ground with a thud and slid across the deck. The can of ancient beans and mystery meat toppled through the air, disgorging its contents on his face and neck.

Ant, Wolvinator, and Foo each surrounded Gnoizic and wrapped him in a tight hug, halting his progress. After a brief struggle, they all toppled to the ground in a tangled heap of limbs. The trapped Buccaneer started laughing heavily at the ridiculous nature of his impulsive actions and the hilarious result. The other pilots in the room likewise began laughing at the comedy of errors.

"You guys are all crazy," Crane observed as he grabbed his food and wandered off to the other side of the room to avoid any part of the conflict.

"Agreed," Rev mused with a smirk, taking a bite out of one of the discarded desserts from the four pilots' meals that were currently on the ground.

"Ah- HA!" Loth-Cat exclaimed victoriously, pulling back their arm as their fingers grasped what they were searching for. "Finally, time to see my prize!" They pulled back their arm and sat upright, but their exultent smile quickly turned into a frown as they stared at the strange item in their hands. "Uh… what?"

Animal's jovial smile slowly turned into an intense look of dismay. He crossed the distance between him and Loth-Cat in two enormous steps as he snatched the device from the youth's hand.

"Hey!" Loth-Cat exclaimed, rubbing their hand.

"Where did you find this?" Animal growled, continuing to eye the bit of wiring, microphone, and transmitter in his hand.

"It was stuck to the bottom of the couch," Loth-Cat replied slowly. "Why? What is it?"

"We've been bugged."

***

CRS Vigilant; SSD

"There you are!" said a female voice from behind Captain Roy "Lock" Callahan.

Craning his white haired head back back, he caught sight of Rogue Squadron's newer pilots. In the month since she'd joined things had definitely been strange. Between the new pilot, the comings and goings of 1st Lieutenants Michael "Mustang" Lee Chun To and Josh "Hellcat" Kinney, and Major Andrew "Dobber" Dobson's imprisonment, Lock's own excursions seemed unimportant in the larger scheme of things. In any case, Rogue had been given light duty as a result, which gave Lock plenty of time to indulge in his favorite pastime.

Though he knew that she knew that he'd seen her, the Rogue's attention returned to the game in front of him with no response. A pile of chips had grown at the center of the table and like mynocks flocking to an exhaust port, four pilots had huddled around. Across from Lock was 1st Lt. Kell "Dragon" Arcfire, his serious expression transfixed on the cards in his hand. To either side was Flight Officer Jack "Frosty" McCauley and 1st Lt. Conall "Shadow" McKenna, who were both paying more attention to watching 1st Lt. Jeni "Angel" Courtner reject yet another young engineer. It wasn't long before the young man was walking away, head hung low.

"Another bites the dust," Frosty snickered. "Oy! Dragon! Do ya plan to grow the pot by waiting for inflation ta kick in? Kark it, mate, if ya got nothin' just kriffin' fold!"

"Shut up! Bastard, let me think!" Dragon snapped back at Frosty, who simply replied with a cool smile.

"Ignore him, Frosty is probably bluffing ‘cause he wants you to fold," Shadow said casually, lifting a bottle of beer to his lips and sipping.

"What? Me?" Frosty seemed taken aback.

Shadow smirked, "Aye, yeah, you, you Coruscanti sewer-rat."

"You think he is?" Dragon asked Shadow, narrowing his eyes.

"He's always lying about something," Shadow shrugged.

"What! I have never...! Well, maybe just the once...Okay, a couple times! Two, three times... at most!..."

Dragon cut off Frosty's protest. "Kark it. I'll match... and raise another ten!"

Lock, Frosty, and Shadow groaned in unison. They matched and then the cards spiked, changing on all four players. The Corellian watched as his hand went from a ‘sure-win' to a ‘sure-loss'. His face remained expressionless as the others subtly tried to glance about in an attempt to detect any change in gesture.

"Oooh, ouch, tough luck, eh?" said that same female voice behind him. Wide eyed, Lock turned to look at 2nd Lt. Katlyn "Starfire" Thornwood incredulously, who only then seemed to realize her mistake.

"Lock's got nothing," Frosty said immediately.

"Zilch, he's screwed," Shadow followed up.

"That spike is a bastard," Dragon chuckled.

Lock stared daggers at all of them.

"I hope all of you get fragged," he shot at them. All he could really do was accept the loss, so shaking his head he stood up and stretched, unable to stifle a yawn. He turned to Starfire after a moment, "What'd you want?"

"Jalb sent me to find you," she explained, keeping instep with Lock as he waved goodbye to his friends and started walking out of the SSD. "We have a mission coming up. Briefing in fifteen."

"Fifteen? Perfect, that's enough time to go to your quarters."

"My quarters?" Starfire raised a brow. "Why?"

"So you can pay me back what you just lost me," Lock answered, still not looking at her.

"I don't owe you anything," she fired back. "Plus, isn't it inappropriate for a senior officer to enter my quarters?"

"It could be, but everyone here knows I don't date twelve year olds."

"Do I look that young to you?" she asked, finally making Lock turn towards her. He looked her over once and opened his mouth to speak but she cut him off, "I'm not that young."

"Pff, you might as well be, scrub," Lock answered. "Stop arguing. Lets get those credits or we'll be late for the briefing and I'll have to assign you Tug Duty."

"Captain!"

"So you do remember my rank?" Lock smirked triumphantly.

Starfire growled and remained silent the rest of the way, though she did note that Lock didn't even attempt to veer towards the pilot's quarters and led them straight to the briefing room.

***

CRS Vigilant Ready Room

After a quick trip to his quarters to change out of the clothes stained during the scuffle with Gnoizic, Bulldog strode back into the Ready Room unsure exactly what to expect. He'd been prepared to see a team of techs tearing the room apart, but as he entered the threshold his mouth dropped.

There were no techs picking through the place looking for more bugs. Instead, it was just a lone, sweaty Animal tearing furniture away from the places the pieces had occupied ever since the renovation, revealing all manner of wiring going into random panels in the walls, deck, and ceiling panels.

"Where are the rest of the guys?"

"I told them to go back to their quarters and await instructions," Animal said as he swiped the accumulating sweat from his brow. He gestured with a frustrated hand at the chaos he'd created. "Look at this mess!"

"Yeah," Bulldog whistled, envisioning the anger Gremlin would levy in their direction when she found out about the Buccaneer OC's seemingly wanton destruction of her handiwork. Each piece of furniture was turned over so the bottom could be clearly seen, and tables and chairs were knocked randomly about in the process. "Grem's gonna be pissed about this."

Animal arched an eyebrow. "What? No! Not this furniture, Captain. Look at all these devices! This place has more ears than confession at the Children of the Empty Sun temple!" He growled as he yanked another device, wires flailing about. He held it up in his clenched hand.

"Oh, yeah," Bulldog agreed quickly, nodding emphatically in hopes of avoiding angering his boss. Looking down, he found one of the wired devices near his boot. Bending over, he picked it up gingerly and examined the rudimentary listening device carefully. After what seemed like enough time to hopefully mollify his OC and fool him into thinking he wasn't out of his depth, he yanked the device and wiring out of the wall panel it disappeared into. He held it up triumphantly in front of him as Animal had done with the wires he was currently clutching.

"Damn it!" Animal cursed angrily. "I didn't track that one yet."

Bulldog's face fell. "Oh. Sorry, boss."

"There's so many wires going into places I can't track properly by myself," Animal said as he shot to his feet and walked toward a wall panel. He waved Bulldog closer as he peered into the dark recesses of the wall. "Pop open your flashlight and give me a hand over here."

Bulldog ambled across the room carefully, avoiding stepping on anything in the process as if he wanted to hide his presence in this crime scene. He snapped his flashlight on and aimed it into the wall, illuminating wire bundles and pipes. "What, uh, are we looking for?"

"I don't know," Animal growled angrily as his head bobbed around inside the panel. "Hold the light steady, damnit!"

Bulldog attempted to comply, but a memory of his father getting angry at him for not holding the flashlight properly while he repaired a freighter made him flinch. The back of Animal's head suddenly morphed into his father, and he felt as if he were back in that day of his youth, and his next mistake would be the one that caused his father to hit him for the first time. A cold sweat began in the small of his back, instantly soaking his new uniform. And, as it had happened in his youth, he flinched again, sending the beam of light away from wherever it needed to be.

"Damnit, XO!" Animal shouted, yanking his head out of the hole. "Wait here. Don't let anybody inside." He got to his feet and stormed toward the door. He keyed a message quickly on his datapad as he stalked off.

"Where are you going?"

"To get more help!" Animal shouted from halfway down the hall. "When Talon arrives, go to your office and await further orders!"

Bulldog's shoulders slumped at the brusque dismissal from his OC. After a few moments of sadness, he shook his head clear to remove the last vestiges of one of his worst childhood memories from his vision. He closed his eyes and took a moment to calm himself with slow, deep breaths. Slowly but surely his heart rate lowered as he continued the breathing techniques Dr. Zeq'aal had taught him months prior.

"Just WHAT have you done to my Ready Room?!" a voice shrieked from the doorway Animal had just exited.

Bulldog's eyes snapped open to see the red Zeltronian Spectre XO, Captain Gemilan "Gremlin". Her visible rage seemed to tinge her skin an even deeper shade of red than he'd ever seen before. Gulping audibly, he held out his hands in front of him in an attempt to forestall the beating she clearly planned to give him. "Uh… I can explain."

Gremlin fixed a steely glare on him, clearly still in a violent mood. "Start. Talking."

***

CRS Vigilant Rogue Leader's Office

Lt. Col. Chris "Jalb_k" Reynolds zipped up his flight suit and grabbed his gloves off of the large stack of books on the subject of military laws of various nations and armies throughout history. The books currently dominated the landscape of his desk, leaving only a small area for his computer terminal to be nestled in tightly amongst the old hard-bound flimsiplast tomes. He looked at the other occupant of his office expectantly. "Will there be anything else, Syntax?"

Lt. Col. 9-LOM "Syntax" rose to his feet at the clear dismissal. He saluted with the same level of precision he always did, made easier by the fact that he was a droid. "No, sir, that will be all. Thank you. I shall interface with the Major now."

"Very good," Jalb nodded as he returned the salute, watching the black military droid exit his office. He waited a beat, then took one step toward the door when it suddenly whooshed open again. Before the door even opened fully, Animal came barging in. Taken aback, Jalb merely uttered a brief greeting while his brain attempted to recover. "Uh… Major?"

Animal finally halted and realized his faux pas. He came to full, rigid attention and saluted properly. "Lieutenant Colonel."

Jalb smirked at the sight of Animal's fumbled entry to his office, but it was quickly wiped away as he saw the expression on his longtime friend's face. He returned the salute quickly. "At ease, Major. What can I do for you?"

Animal released his salute, but his posture was anything but at ease. "Jalb, we've got a big problem."

Jalb held his gloves up as if to say he was about to go on a sortie. "How big?"

"I need one of your pilots; Mustang specifically, in the Ready Room. Now."

Jalb was surprised at the gruff nature of the request, and it wasn't lost on him that the tone in Animal's voice was anything but deferential. "Can it wait? The Rogues are about to go on an important sortie."

"I'm sorry sir, but it cannot wait."

"You'll have to do better than that to pull one of my pilots off the line right before a mission when I've already got another one in the brig, Major. What is the nature of this job you need Lieutenant Lee Chun To for?"

"I need anybody and everybody with any sort of computer background. He was a computer engineer in a past life, right? He's at the top of my list."

Jalb's patience was wearing thin. "What is the big hubbub, Chris?"

"We discovered a rat's nest of listening devices and other eavesdropping equipment in the Ready Room, sir."

The bottom fell out of Jalb's stomach, sending his equilibrium into freefall. He leaned against his desk to keep from losing his feet as he tried to catch his breath. "How many are we talking about?"

"More than I can count, and more than I can track and hack myself, sir. Matter of fact, I could use anybody else with any sort of black-bag ops skills. Slicers, thieves, shoot, any petty crooks would help!"

"But you absolutely need Mustang," Jalb added.

"He's at the top of my list, yes."

Jalb pursed his lips as he thought long and hard about it. On the one hand, this was a serious problem that needed to be tackled immediately. On the other hand, the mission the Rogues were about to ship out on was also vital. After a minute of mental debate mirrored with him nodding his head back and forth as he mulled things over, he grimaced. "I'm sorry, Chris. I can't let Mustang off the hook for this one. We're already short as it is. I'm sorry, truly."

Animal seemed to be holding back a string of curses.

"What about Frosty, Bone, and Silence? Shoot, even Damak and Shadow might be of use. And didn't Talon do all of the wiring during the reno?"

"I already called Talon in to start looking," Animal replied quickly. "I'll take all that you can give me, but sir, I really need Mustang on this one. He's got the direct skills I think I need to tackle this thoroughly. Quite frankly, I don't trust anybody on this ship outside of our wing to do this properly, otherwise I'd be bugging Captain Quelle with this."

"And you're sure you can't do this properly without Mustang? I don't have any other options to replace him on this sortie. We're dangerously low on Rogue Qualified pilots in the wing right now."

Animal's eyes lit up after Jalb's last statement rattled around his brainpan a bit. "What if I could give you a Rogue Qualified replacement?"

Jalb's brow furrowed as he attempted to decipher Animal's hypothetical question. His mind was so scrambled by this sudden dire revelation of deceit and danger that he couldn't parse through the words enough to figure out who Animal was suggesting.

***

CRS Vigilant Buccaneer Executive Officer's Quarters

A loud knock at the door jarred Bulldog from his fitful nap. Taking a moment to see if the noise was real or if he'd dreamed it, he continued to lay in his bunk with his eyes half open, taking a long pull from his flask that contained mid-level quality whisky.

The knocking resumed again, this time more insistent.

"Enter!" Bulldog shouted, then groaned under his breath as he sat up in bed and awaited his impatient guest.

Major Tony "Thanatos" Marco stepped inside the room after the door fully opened, taking a brief moment to look around before leveling a cool gaze in Bulldog's direction. "Captain."

"Major," Bulldog replied, rising to his feet slowly. "To what do I owe the pleasure? I'd have cleaned up the place if I knew you were dropping by."

Thanatos barked out a laugh at the remark and smiled. "Always were a laid back one, weren't you?"

Bulldog nodded warily, noting that his question hadn't been answered.

Thanatos looked around once again, noting a bottle of bourbon open on Bulldog's desk. "How much have you drank today?"

"Not enough," Bulldog replied a bit more defensively than he'd intended. "I'm off duty until further notice, per Major Stephen."

Thanatos held up his hands in mock surrender. "Fair enough. So no bullshit, can you fly right now?"

"Fly?"

"Briefing in five minutes in the refreshers by the main weight room."

Bulldog rolled his eyes and nodded dramatically. "Oh, ok. I'm not drunk enough to fall for that one again, Tony."

Thanatos laughed again. "Not a joke. Be there in five or strap yourself into a tug for the next month. Rogue Leader's orders." He waited one more moment to make sure the Buccaneer understood that he was completely serious. He rifled through Bulldog's closet and pulled out his Rogue flight suit and threw it at the Buccaneer, who clumsily caught it. Conveying the message with his eyes, he held up five fingers and walked out.

Bulldog stood there for a moment, completely flabbergasted by this recent turn of events as he grasped the crumpled Rogue flight gear. Still, he knew better than to assume Thanatos was bluffing him or attempting a prank. He hurriedly grabbed his flight gear and ran down the hall after the Rogue Executive Officer. "Wait up!"

"Catch up!"

Bulldog grunted as he jogged faster, slowing as he neared the fast-walking Rogue. "What's the mission?"

"You'll find out when we get to the briefing."

"In the refresher."

"Yes."

"By the weight room."

"Yes."

"You understand my disbelief."

Thanatos barked out a laugh as he turned down another hallway, heading in the direction of the weight room.

"Why the refresher?"

Thanatos looked over his shoulder. "I think you know the answer to that one already."

Bulldog stopped walking as he wracked his brain over that line. "What did I do this time?" he mused aloud, before realizing Thanatos hadn't stopped walking. He bit back a curse as he ran to catch back up and see what was really going on.

"At least you're sober enough to run straight," Thanatos said with a smirk as he paused outside the male refresher door, placing his hand on it as he paused. "I'll fill you in on why you're here now so we don't have to stay cramped in this refresher any longer than we need to. Whatever you and the rest of the Buccaneers found in the Ready Room has caused enough of a stir that Mustang was pulled off of this mission to help figure out what's going on in there. With Rogue Three in the klink, you're the only other Rogue Qualified pilot available on this ship. Major Stephen volunteered you for this so Mustang could be freed up."

Bulldog nodded, finally understanding the situation. "So Major Stephen got mad enough at my bad flashlight-holding skills that he sent me out to get shot at?"

"Something like that, Captain," Thanatos replied with a chuckle. "All right, let's go." He pushed the door open, and both men walked inside, though Bulldog was sure to keep his head on a swivel to make sure he wasn't walking into some sort of prank.

"Farking finally," Lock's voice bit out from around the corner leading to the main refresher room.

"Excellent," Jalb's voice echoed off the close walls of the fresher room. "The Major's brought Captain Clark, and now the six of us can begin."

***

CRS Vigilant Hangar Deck

Bulldog stood at the base of the ladder leading up to Dobber's X-wing. The last time he'd flown one of these, he'd nearly died in an ambush while escorting some droid-piloted freighters through the destroyed Galitan system. And before that, he nearly died and subsequently fell asleep due to combat fatigue when the Vigilant was ambushed by Tol Barand's forces. A shiver raced up and down his spine as he recounted nothing but negative memories associated with this ship. He wrenched his eyes shut and clenched his teeth as he held onto the ladder with both hands in a white-knuckled death grip.

He stuck his finger between his neck and the lip of the flight suit pressing against him there, constricting his breathing slightly. When he'd been promoted and transferred to Buccaneer Squadron's Executive Officer position, he'd put the Rogue flight gear away in his closet. It'd been a long time, at least with how time was measured in fighter pilot lifespans, since he'd worn the black material for a mission. In that intervening time he'd apparently put on a few more pounds, and the material chafed him slightly in all the wrong places. That being said, it would be a lie if he didn't feel a little proud to be putting the Rogue patterned flight suit on once again, even if it was just for one more day.

A female voice cut through his waking nightmare. "Can you keep up with the speed of an X-wing compared to your usual slug mobile, Captain?"

Bulldog clenched his teeth even harder, feeling them creaking under the force. He turned around slowly, his eyes falling upon the diminutive form of Starfire, striking a heroic pose with her helmet resting on her hip in one hand. Taking a deep breath to control his nerves and his temper, he let it out slowly before responding. "Darlin', I was flying X-wings and A-wings before you were old enough to walk."

Starfire's eyes narrowed at the slight against her age, but she quickly recovered and smirked confidently. "Well, last time we flew, you were a bit slow on the uptake. I'm just worried about your reflexes, old man."

Bulldog barked out a laugh at the weak retort. Deciding to show her just how wrong she was, he pressed on. "You flew against 'too drunk to see straight' Bulldog in the sims. You're flying with 'just drunk enough to feel good' Bulldog now. Try to keep up this time, kid."

"Oh, I'll try not to leave you behind, Captain."

Bulldog was becoming tired of the banter, having had no sort of working relationship with this person and therefore no patience for her ‘too cool for school' act. "Listen, I was a Rogue before, earned it the hard way. Let's just hope you can keep up with the big boys now that your guardian angel is locked up."

Anger flashed across Starfire's face. She opened her mouth to respond to the taunt, but was stopped by the arrival of 1st Lt. Nick "Jasted" Finelli ambling over.

"Good to see you back in the Rogue flight gear, Dog!"

"Good to be back, Nick."

"You think you still remember how to go faster than an exogorth?" Jasted said with a laugh.

Bulldog looked at Starfire and raised his eyebrows. "See, rook, this is how you banter." He looked back at Jasted with a conspiratorial grin.

"How is that any different than what I said?" Starfire whined.

"His reference was cooler," Bulldog said definitively as he crossed his arms. "Style points and all that…"

Jalb, Thanatos, and Lock all joined the impromptu gathering. "Everything good over here?"

Jasted laughed. "Yeah, just the usual cocky Rogue pre-mission one-upmanship going on."

Jalb smiled and nodded. "Ah, so Captain Clark finally admits that his Y-wing has nothing on the beautiful T Sixty-Five B and he's ready to tell us how much he misses us?" The rest of the Rogues laughed at the remark, even though it wasn't the greatest burn Jalb had ever delivered.

Bulldog held up a finger to silence the laughter, and then put up two more along with the first. "Ah, but are we forgetting who you're talking to here, Lead? You're looking at the record holder on all three wing challenges! Put some respect on my name."

Thanatos and Jalb's faces fell at the reminder of their standing in the wing capital ship races, having been bested by Bulldog and Dragon in all three missions to date. Lock and Jasted, however, began laughing vigorously. Eventually, smiles broke through Jalb and Thanatos' faces and they let loose a good-natured chuckle of their own.

"Looks like the Bucc XO isn't coming back from this hop," Lock chuckled ominously, drawing more laughter from Thanatos and Jasted..

"Carried by Dragon," Jalb blurted out, drawing laughter from all the veterans in attendance as he fell back on his tried and true comeback any time he was reminded of the records.

"We'll see how long those records stand," Thanatos added.

"The plaque for the runners-up is in the ladies room, gents."

"The what now?" Starfire asked, completely lost in the exchange.

"Run along to your ships, now," Bulldog said as his own laughter petered out, waving a dismissive hand. "Time for Bucc XO to show you how it's done."

Jasted held out a fist for Bulldog to pound before jogging off to his own X-wing. Lock gave a sloppy two-fingered salute as he likewise went to his own fighter. Thanatos put a hand on Starfire's shoulder and pulled her toward her ship with a nod of his head. The latter looked over her shoulder and let loose one parting shot, "Bet I get more kills than you!"

Bulldog cupped his hands around his mouth. "It's all about the mission, not the number of kills!" he called back.

Jalb watched them go as he stood shoulder to shoulder with Bulldog. After they had all wandered out of earshot, he looked back into Bulldog's eyes. "You ready?"

"I stay ready so I don't have to get ready," Bulldog lied with a cocky smirk, attempting to hide his nerves once again.

Jalb barked out a laugh as he lightly punched Bulldog's shoulder. "That's the spirit. Once a Rogue, always a Rogue," he said as he trotted off to prep his own ship for flight, leaving Bulldog alone once again with his borrowed ship and the ball of nerves wrenching his intestines in interesting directions.

An unfamiliar astromech rolled toward him, making a point to examine him head to toe with his ocular receptor. After a moment, it tootled an interrogative, followed by more disbelieving tones.

"Uh, who are you?"

"That's your astromech for this jump, Captain," a voice said from nearby.

Turning around, Bulldog saw the once familiar face of the wing's X-wing technician, the Ishi Tib female known as Talza Jech. He grimaced. "Eh, no offense, Warrant Officer, but I'd really prefer to use my little buddy on this one."

Talza frowned. "Are you sure, Io here is acclimated to this snub and knows the wiring inside and out."

Bulldog set his jaw. "Very sure. I don't fly without Weight."

Talza thought for a moment, but shook her head rather than attempt to argue the point further. "Fair enough, Captain. I'll have R2-W8 loaded into the ship on the double. Clear skies," she said as she waved and walked off to issue more orders to her crewmen.

Bulldog looked down at the astromech he'd just rejected outright. "Sorry, little buddy. I'd prefer to fly with my regular astromech."

Io hooted angrily and deployed its arc welder, superheated sparks loudly spurting forth from the dual prongs. It slowly rolled forward, letting loose a low, dark tone.

Bulldog nearly leapt out of his body at the sight and thought of having that thing make any sort of contact with him. The last time he'd been stunned in such a manner, he woke up strapped into a barely functional longprobe Y-wing by then Colonel Shen'ryu. After a moment of shock, he jumped up and grabbed the ladder, clambering up and into the safety of the cockpit as quickly as his bulk allowed.

Gripping the lip of the cockpit with both hands, he leaned over and peered down at the enraged astromech droid down below. The dome rotated repeatedly as it searched for him, though the arc welder was slowly retracted as the droid no longer saw its target. "What a barvy droid," he mumbled aloud.

The ocular receptor of the dome craned upward and locked in on his face. Before anybody could react, a water spout popped out of one of the dome panels and unleashed a steady stream of water into Bulldog's face.

Sputtering under the stream of water, Bulldog retreated into the cockpit and closed the canopy. Wiping the excess water off of his face with a gloved hand, he chuckled at the audacity and spirit of Dobber's astromech. If he didn't already have a rock-solid bond with his own black and red astromech, he certainly would have had no qualms flying with Io and felt completely protected.

He attempted to lean back into the couch, but the seat's settings were almost past upright bordering on leaning forward. "How in the hell does the Major fly like this?" he asked aloud. Huffing in frustration, he fished his hand down to the seat controls and held his finger down to recline the seat back to his usual comfort level. Grinding his shoulders, back, and butt into the couch, he attempted to break the duracrete-like cushioning to make himself feel somewhat like he was in the old broken-in seat of his Y-wing.

A faint scraping sound from behind him drew his attention aft, craning his neck over his shoulder. The familiar red and black chassis of Weight filled the back window as the droid was lowered into the socket. After a moment, the droid was secured and the magnetic crane was removed. The interior speakers of the X-wing popped briefly as Weight interfaced with them, hooting an interrogative.

"Sorry buddy, I got pulled for a mission and I didn't want to go have any fun without you."

Weight let loose a bleating sound that could be considered a sarcastic laugh.

"Yeah yeah, you're right," Bulldog chuckled and smiled. "I needed you like a safety blanket… Speaking of…" He lifted half of his rear end and let loose a loud and long fart. When the flatulence ceased, he leaned back down. "That's better. Feeling like I'm home already."

Weight moaned.

"What are you complaining about, you're outside!"

"Maybe, ah, make sure your comms are off next time you need to clear the room, Dog," Jalb's voice called out over comms. Laughter of the others in the sortie followed.

"Especially in front of a lady," Jasted interjected, drawing even more laughter.

Bulldog shrugged and waved at all the other pilots in their cockpits. "More where that came from, boys and girl. Plenty more."

"Spare us, mate," Jalb replied. "Here's the play, again. Radio silence until weapons free. No lights on arrival, cruising speed 70 MGLT. Echelon Right of leader, combat spread 250 meters at all times." Jalb rifled off the rest of the pre-mission briefing points again at a breakneck pace. Taking a breath, he added, "everybody got all that?"

"Was it 70 or 80?" Starfire frantically asked.

"70," Thanatos replied patiently.

"Echelon… left?"

"Right!" multiple voices replied.

***

Nostradyme System- Bulldog's X-wing

The six X-wings of Rogue Squadron, sporting their Cavern Angel-inspired black and grey paint jobs, slipped into a cut of the strange asteroid field of the system and nestled into their ambush positions. Eons ago, the system was once home to many rocky worlds that were surrounded by even more rock-rich satellites. A gravitic anomaly disrupted the orbits of the two outermost planets of the system, destabilizing the entire system and throwing everything into chaos. After a millennia of collisions, nothing resembling a habitable world remained. Instead, the entire system was a labyrinth of strangely stabilized corridors amongst the rubble, with a few hairy short cuts available to the most daring of pilots if they wished to avoid traversing the hazardous and lengthy maze.

Nestled somewhere deep within this chaotic field of asteroids was an Imperial research station. New Republic Intelligence didn't know exactly what technology was being researched within, but a mission from Sunrider squadron on the CRS Sovereignty had discovered a reliable schedule of convoy craft in and out of the base. Scouted by Skull Squadron in Imperial craft, they indeed confirmed that the schedule was reliable with absolutely no deviation. Before the Skulls could formulate a plan for a hit and fade strike, they were called off on a different mission by the commanders onboard the Vigilant because they wanted to make sure the mission got done properly and not left up to chance..

And now it fell to the short-staffed Rogues to hobble the base by interdicting the next convoy of supplies in this chaotic hellscape of tumbling rocks of varying sizes and shapes. Being the only squadron NRI had confidence enough in to survive the hazards of the system to reach the desired ambush point, they were the ones dropped into the rock grinder of a system. Now here they sat, waiting for the clockwork-like punctuality of the Imperial convoy that was said to consist of a mixture of Class Four Container Transports and Zeta-class Heavy Cargo Shuttles to slowly glide past their selected ambush position. To aid them in detecting the convoy before they reached visual range, they'd fired off a specialized probe set to ping once the moment the convoy appeared in its range, giving them time to prepare.

They'd traversed the main, mostly safe thoroughfare for a spell until they reached the first identified security sensor checkpoint and deviated from the path for the suggested shortcut that NRI had laid out for them. It was merely a suggestion because no manned craft had flown it, and the few repurposed probe droids that had been sent through all suffered terrible misfortunes before reaching the other side of the path past the checkpoint. Heck, the only reason they knew most of the path beyond the checkpoint was that one probe managed to tumble past the security checkpoint after the propulsion was damaged by a shower of micrometeorites and momentarily disabled enough that the sensor crews didn't detect it. It had recovered functionality a fortuitous distance past the station and managed to continue the path for quite some time before finally fully succumbing to the damage and plowing into the dangerous area outside of the path and getting obliterated.

Starfire only made one mistake in the formation spread during the initial flight, going wider than the prescribed 250 meters off of Jalb's right S-Foil. After nearly sideswiping Jasted's A-wing, she realized her mistake and recovered her assigned position quickly.

The shortcut had been exactly as harrowing to fly as the Rogues had expected, though each pilot's skill emerged enough to keep them intact to the other side. A few close calls occurred, namely Bulldog getting a rock to scrape the entire length of the keel of his ship from nose to stern. Nothing was too damaged to force him to abort, but he definitely felt like he'd need some new undergarments when he made it back to the Vigilant. If he made it back. He'd also have to write a very sincere apology letter to Dobber about the large gash in the keel of his X-wing. The ribbing he'd receive if everybody made it back made his cheeks flush considering all the trash he'd talked before they'd launched.

Starfire, meanwhile, had indeed flown circles quite literally around his craft as she effortlessly threaded the needle multiple times to avoid harm. While the Rogue veterans hadn't been as flashy as she had been, they all still made it through without so much as a nick in their hull armor.

The plan was so deliciously simple that even the Buccaneer tag-along could appreciate the direct nature of the coming strike. The moment the front of the convoy was in the kill zone, Flight Two consisting of Thanatos and Jasted would pop their sensor jammers and initiate a controlled tumble, hazarding the defensive turrets of the cargo haulers as their augmented sensor systems inspected the craft. Once they reached the ships, they would split, with each ship going in a different direction at top speed to inspect as many cargo loads as possible to determine the nature of the raw materials being ushered into the base with such regularity and urgency that the schedule was never altered.

Flight One consisting of Jalb and Starfire and Flight Three consisting of Lock and Bulldog would burst forth and obliterate the hapless ships directly in their path with their strike X-wings loaded for bear. Then Flight One would break toward the back of the convoy while Flight Three raced to destroy everything up to the front. Flight Two would pull back and engage any reinforcement fighters from the base or sensor checkpoint they'd bypassed and keep the strike flights clear to continue destroying the convoy to the last ship. There was rumored to be a Star Destroyer somewhere near the base, but the lack of data on the path past their ambush point didn't tell them how big the tunnel was and if it would admit the larger ship to get in close to them or not.

Bulldog wrung his hands together, kneading the knots out of the meaty area between his thumb and index finger. The flight through the asteroid field had run him through the wringer. It had tested every bit of his situational awareness and skill. More than once Weight had warned him about a hazard he hadn't seen coming, and he was just now coming down from that adrenaline rush as they waited patiently for the targets to arrive. He looked forward to the next phase of the operation, as destroying bigger ships as efficiently as possible was his specialty.

Weight beeped a few times flatly, drawing his attention to his screen.

Stored message from Rogue Leader. Per briefing: Maintain comm silence until target is 0-2-0 from bullseye. F2 tumble out and pop stealth to ID manifests, accelerate to attack speed upon contact and split. Engage fighter escort if any is near, otherwise fly CAP for F1 and F3. F1 and F3 lock S-Foils into attack positions and strike assigned targets as they cross your nose. F1 to port of bullseye, F3 to starboard of bullseye.

Bulldog appreciated the reminder of the briefing orders, and then he saw Starfire immediately pull out her pocket pad of flimsiplast and began furiously re-reading her notes from the briefing. He chuckled as he remembered the first few times he'd been on a Rogue mission and received a laundry list of instructions at the same time. No doubt she was attempting to bullet-point the message and parse things out because she couldn't exactly open up a channel and ask anybody for clarification. And likewise, he couldn't just ring her up and tell her to go when the middle of the convoy was right in front of them

Communications had been turned off completely by their computer systems to avoid any accidental traffic that could be detected, so the entire mission had been a lonely one up until this point. That being said, the ships were all close enough that line of sight communication by hand signals could be done. Looking out to his right, he saw Lock staring back at him. While facial features were tough to pick up with the helmets and visors, he could see Lock hold one fist up toward him, while using the other hand to feign winding a crank attached to the fist. With each turn of the imaginary crank, his middle finger slowly rose until it was fully upright. He then reversed his fist and waved just that one finger up and down.

Weight bleated some aggressive tones, having also seen the gesture.

"Nah, he didn't mean it."

Weight let out a low, mournful tone. A message scrolled across his screen.

You don't know that.

***

CRS Vigilant Ready Room

Animal and Mustang stood at each end of the pool table as the others in attendance filled in the sides. All looked down at the tangled spaghetti of wires, microphones, and cameras laid out before them. "Take a good, hard look," Animal said as he gestured at the bounty of bugs he'd found by himself.

"Is this everything?" Flight Officer Thos "Bone" Sherru asked. His youthful stature was offset by a hardened gaze of a talented and observational criminal. While he'd been on the straight and narrow since joining Renegade Wing, his eye for mischief hadn't atrophied.

"It has to be, right?" Frosty replied, his eyes relaying that he was somewhat bored of the task he'd been roped into. Just because of his criminal past, he was constantly pulled in to look into certain bits of chicanery for his two cents. He wasn't sure, but he suspected that Wolf usually pulled him into those types of scenes to gauge his reaction and see if he'd give himself away with an unintentional gesture. While he didn't have anything to do with this mess, he took extra care to avoid giving off any signals that might make the others in attendance think otherwise.

"I don't remember this much extra wiring in the places you found these, Major," 2nd Lt. Edwyn "Talon" KalDan interjected defensively. The youth was apparently very eager to clear his name of this offense, knowing that Animal was likely in the know regarding his double agent beginning with the wing. He picked up one piece of wire and held it up. "This is all newer, cheaper grade material. Grem and I made sure to barter for the very best quality components and furniture for this place to avoid having to do any maintenance for a long while."

"EXPENSIVE furniture!" Gremlin spat from the doorway. She was so beside herself that she could barely look at the state of the room her and Talon had worked so hard to put together.

2nd Lt. Rosk "Silence" Vikeron picked up two different-looking devices. "These are two completely different company products. Whoever got these, they certainly made sure to pick up a wide variety of devices in the assumption that some may be detected by our scanner sweeps more easily than others."

"Sure," Shadow agreed as he rubbed his chin in thought. "Though, it troubles me that none of them have been discovered at all by now. Most of these aren't even shielded to avoid detection."

2nd Lt. Andika "Damak" Malim nodded thoughtfully, but did not add to the discussion. He was merely looking around the room with a wary eye as he attempted to suss out more bug locations. In his cursory scan, he'd seen at least ten more likely locations where bugs could be hidden.

Mustang's eyes widened at Shadow's implication. "Are you thinking that this room has never been swept? How is that even possible when our quarters get run through once a week at least."

A dark look flashed across Animal's face. Shaking the feeling off after a moment, he looked at Frosty and pointed toward the door. "Flog, go to Spook in security and borrow one of her bug detectors. If she asks you why or gives you guff, tell her it's for me. She'll know what that means. But by NO means tell her what's going on in here or what the device is needed for. This entire operation is need-to-know."

Frosty looked back at Animal, clearly not happy at being chosen as the group's errand boy. However, knowing how the chain of command and how many buckets of dung would rain down on him if he bucked the structure, he swallowed his objections and merely nodded curtly.

"In the meantime, let's see what else we can find until he gets back," Animal said to the others, clapping his hands once to indicate that it was time for action once again.

***

Nostradyme System- Bulldog's X-wing

A long series of binary noises rising and falling in volume, pitch, and tone from Weight drew Bulldog's attention back to his Combat Multiview Display.

Reading multiple ships entering maximum range of sensor probe. 14 ships, 4 Class-four container transports and 10 Zeta-class Heavy Cargo Shuttles. 10 klicks out.

Bulldog read, and re-read the message again. Looking out into the dark of space, he couldn't see the ships yet. Without turning on his ship's active sensors, they likely wouldn't be visible until they were almost right on top of the waiting Rogues. Unfortunately those active sensors would give away their positions early, and not using them meant the smaller craft like TIE escorts would not be detected until they fired up their primary systems and commenced with the attack.

He looked to his left, seeing Jasted rolling his neck through the bubble cockpit of his A-wing. Slightly beyond was Thanatos in his own A-wing, sitting stock-still as if he were asleep. Out of reflex, he banged on his transparisteel cockpit canopy in an attempt to rouse the motionless Rogue XO, but quickly stopped and laughed at the futility of the gesture.

Looking to his right, he spied Lock as he began flipping switches and toggling controls in his cockpit. Beyond, Jalb and Starfire likewise seemed to be preparing their ships for combat. Bulldog absentmindedly wondered what they were doing while he looked back out into the black.

The tetrahedral shapes of the cargo transports were clearly visible now, but they were still too far off for the mission to begin. The large train of cargo containers being towed by these behemoths was only visible by their silhouettes against the asteroids on the other side of the safe pathway.

His jaw dropped. The amount of cargo being towed by each of those four massive transport carriers seemed like enough to provision the Vigilant Task Force for a year. "Whatever they're carrying, it's a lot of it…"

He continued to watch as two of the four massive container ships slowly slipped through the tunnel of open space amidst the asteroid field. A few of the smaller Zeta-class haulers flitted about in the open space, as if the pilots were bored and looking for the smallest modicum of excitement. A predatory smile crept across his face. "They think they're safe."

Suddenly, a loud and insistent pinging echoed around his cockpit. Immediately, his stomach tightened again as he realized that the Imperial convoy wasn't lazy and secure in their assumed safety at all. Full-powered sensor pings echoed off of the Rogue ships in waiting as well as the surrounding asteroids they'd pulled in close to for cover.

The pinging intensified as the ships continued to head into the ambush point. Bulldog knew from the briefing that the larger cargo haulers had two different emplacements that could fire on either side if they chose, meaning he'd likely get burned down before takeoff if any of the New Republic ships were spotted on the convoy's scopes. More pings echoed, causing his ears to ring. He jammed his gloved fingers into his ears to alleviate the severe pain the sensor sweep was causing him.

After what seemed like an eternity, the sweep finally ceased. Relief flooded through Bulldog as the sound assaulting his ears finally ended, though the ringing persisted in a muted fashion in lockstep with the throbbing headache he had acquired. He blew out the breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding, now feeling safe from the threat of being atomized as a sitting duck before even launching.

To his left, motion from Jasted and Thanatos' cockpits drew his attention. A series of hand signals flashed between the two pilots, concluding with a thumb's up from each. Both men looked down at their consoles and controls and flipped a few switches. In unison, both A-wings lifted off slowly and moved at almost a drifting tumble toward the convoy. Without their engines lit and any of their systems active, they were still relatively invisible to any scanners in the area. It didn't mean they were completely invisible, as all it took to blow their cover would be one disinterested crew member looking out of the wrong viewport at the wrong time.

Jasted and Thanatos' A-wings tumbled perilously close to the second massive container hauler. As if they both possessed access to the force, both pilots lit up their systems, jammers first, and then their engines flared to life. Both pilots immediately focused their sensor arrays on the containers of the first line of containers they encountered. Wordlessly, both ships split off and started scanning various craft in the opposite direction.

A pinging noise drew Bulldog's attention back to his CMD. On the screen, a lengthy list of materials that the boosted sensors of the A-wings had detected. The list ran by quickly, standard fare for any manner of projects from base building to ship construction flying up the screen. Foodstuffs, durasteel, duracrete, focusing lenses, and the like continued to fly by the screen in random order as Jasted and Thanatos worked their way through the convoy with their scanners at breakneck pace. They only had a limited time with their jammers, and that time was quickly coming to an end.

Weight hooted in surprise, drawing Bulldog's attention back to his sensor screen.

Coaxium, Tibanna, Rhydonium, Durelium, Hfredium, Bacta, Doonium, Phrik, Beskar.

Bulldog whistled. "That's going to be an expensive loss for the base when we bust it all up."

He looked back at the convoy and noticed that it was almost in the position required for Flights One and Three to push off and go hot.

A sound of complete shock erupted from Weight. Bulldog stopped his flight preparations and looked back at the translation from his droid.

24 TIE/D Defender Elites, FNV-23 HazMat Level Double-Aurek, H.S.T. Array Prototype.

Bulldog's eyes widened at that last bit of cargo detected. The Defenders were a worry since he'd never flown against one in real life, but they were absolute demons in SIM training. Even a wave of four ships gave triple their number of Rebel fighters a heck of a time, and often distracted them long enough for whatever target they were striking at to escape. Sometimes they even destroyed enough of the rebels to either force them to escape themselves or get wiped out completely. Destroying two squadrons' worth in their cargo containers would be a massive victory in and of itself for them.

At each end of the convoy, the jammers on the A-wings ran out. Almost immediately, the top-mounted turbolasers and side-mounted laser turrets of the cargo haulers swiveled and started firing. It was in vain, but it was all they had. Jasted and Thanatos expertly avoided the tracking fire and dipped underneath the convoy's plane of travel to negate the topside turrets completely unless the cargo haulers tried to roll their ungainly craft.

The paltry TIE escort attempted to give chase, but the Imperial pilots' skills were no match for the two Rogues' evasive maneuvers. It appeared that the A-wings could keep up the distraction indefinitely as the Imperial flyers seemed too green or disorganized to really press their numeric advantages.

Weight moaned.

Wookiee Slaves.

"Execute!" Jalb's voice ordered over the comms. Immediately, three of the X-wings burst forth from their hidden locations and hurtled toward the distracted convoy and escorts.

"Hell yeah, let's go!" Lock shouted.

Bulldog fired up his power plant, but his hands locked up on his controls and refused to initiate his own launch. His mind was racing to figure out a solution for that last bit of cargo Weight had shared with him, but his mind was blank. Every angle he attempted to explore ended up in one of two options, either them blowing up the slaves or leaving them behind to continue in the Empire's "service". He watched Jalb and Starfire boost launch their torpedoes into their first target, the actual cargo hauler control module on ship number 2 in line.

"Five, Six. Two eyeballs turning on you from 3 o'clock high!" Thanatos called out a warning for Jasted.

"Break right!" Jalb's voice snapped, his ship quickly rolling into her, but Starfire was a tick too slow to react and it forced Jalb to pull out of the break early, almost getting incinerated by a blast from the topside turbolaser turret. A brief string of curses filled the air.

Bulldog's mind continued to race as he realized he hadn't joined in the attack. "Stupid!" He snapped at himself as he continued to finalize his launch procedures, checking his ELS settings. The chaos of call-outs over the comms continued to cut in, to the point where he wasn't sure who was fighting who. It was chaotic, even for Rogue standards.

Starfire re-adjusted for Rogue Leader's evasive maneuver, and both started pummeling the cargo containers with their Armek barrage rockets and their Czerka burst cannons, stitching the train of cargo containers along the entire length. Containers burst apart as rockets tore into them, and the lasers burned through the weak armor with ease. The torpedoes impacted the control ship, overwhelming the shields and obliterating it completely. Shrapnel and debris from the ship and payloads tumbled out in all directions.

"Nine is in the saddle!" Lock called out. "Where you at, Bucc?"

"Kriffing shoot!"

"Not enough punch with just one torp!"

Bulldog keyed his comm back on. "Lead, there are Wookiee slaves in the convoy!"

"Where you at, Dog?" Lock cursed, looping around to wait for his wingman before attacking. A TIE fighter currently attempting to flank Thanatos' A-wing drifted into his path. A quick snapshot later, and the shieldless TIE was sent spiraling off into the asteroid field to be completely obliterated by the rocks.

"Looks like the Bucc can't keep up!" Starfire chided.

"Rolling in on your tail, Six. Five seconds, break right!" Jasted called out, returning the favor from Jasted earlier.

"I saw the manifest," Jalb replied. "Leave the Zeta carrying those slaves alone."

"We're leaving them to the Imps?" Bulldog huffed as if a cold fist gripped his stomach. On the one hand, it was a kindness to free the slaves of the life they were going into, but on the other hand it would be cold-blooded murder that he wasn't sure any of the Rogues on this mission were capable of committing.

"Nothing else we can do now except report it and recommend retrieval back at the Vigilant," Jalb replied with a tinge of sadness to his voice. "Now get your head in the fight!"

"Watch it Rogue, those Zeta's have some hefty guns in the forward arc and they're using the class-fours as cover!" Jasted called out.

"Come on, man!" Lock's voice urged as his X-wing swooped around nearby.

Bulldog shook his head clear and slammed his hand down on the primary ignition. The Novaldex 04-Z cryogenic power generator thrummed to life as all of his systems reached peak efficiency. After taking a moment to double check his ELS settings, he slammed the throttle down to the firewall. His 4L4 fusial thrust engines roared as they went from zero to maximum, pinning him to the back of his pilot's couch as he hurtled forward.

Lock's X-wing fell into formation with him as they charged toward the third massive cargo hauler in line. They were responsible for number 3 and 4, and then all of the Zeta-class haulers in the back while Jalb and Starfire took care of the smaller targets up front.

"Pinpointed the hauler carrying slaves," Thanatos' voice called out. "Pinging it now."

"I'm having Skip remove that target from our computers to avoid an errant targeting accident," Jalb replied.

On Bulldog's screen, a white box appeared around one of the Zeta-class shuttles, and it was instantly changed to a green box with an "X" through it. Now, unless he manually targeted it or if Jalb lifted the order, it would be impossible to hit with ordinance unless he dumbfired it.

His attention was brought back to their first target as a blast from one of the side-mounted laser turrets flashed by close enough to cause Weight to hoot in surprise. He and Lock split up slightly to avoid presenting a larger target as their targeting computers work on a firing solution.

"Back in the saddle. Firing!" Lock shouted, boost-launching a torp of his own before rolling to starboard. He started pummeling the container train with his barrage rockets and lasers to bust up as much cargo as he could.

Weight's chirping sped up until it was a solid tone, matching phase with the targeting indicator on his HUD switching to a full green lock. He sideslipped another dual blast of lasers and smashed his thumb down on the left auxiliary toggle. A whump signified the successful launch of a torpedo, and without waiting to confirm it visually he rolled over and began strafing the containers with lock, smashing the right auxiliary toggle to unleash his own barrage rockets on the carnage in the container train that Lock had started.

Without waiting to see the status of the ship or containers they had just laid waste to, they shifted their focus to the fourth class four cargo hauler in line and targeted it. The fire coming at the was sporadic, though both had to go evasive when one of the Zeta-class shuttles attempted to strafe them with their set of 5 laser cannons. Getting a tone, both X-wings boost-launched their last torpedoes at the command and control center of the ship and split out to each side so they could strafe opposite sides of the cargo train and maximize their damage output.

"Two in the saddle, getting tone!"

"Spread out, Two, watch it so you don't shoot through me!"

"Two klicks… 1.5… FOX!"

"Fox!" Jalb echoed.

"More TIEs!" Thanatos warned. "Zero-five-zero for three!"

"How did they get more ahead of us?!"

"Five, with me, we'll take the pair on the left. Lead, Two, take right," Thanatos ordered.

"Two, combat spread now!" Jalb snapped. After the ships had passed, he cursed. "Fancy flying is great, but you've got to keep your tactical wits about you!"

"Splash two!" Thanatos cheered.

"One and two are merged! Three TIEs pulling right!" Jasted called.

Bulldog kicked his craft over to starboard and targeted their next heavy hauler dead ahead. The side-mounted lasers tracked him as he danced the stick around but kept his targeting reticle on the ship, painting it with a dancing lock as he avoided the incoming fire.

To his right, Lock boosted forth and unleashed his final torpedo, breaking off to get a profile shot on the train of cargo containers behind it to bust it up with the last of his rockets and lasers. "Fox!"

A solid tone filled his cockpit. Tapping down the thumb switch on his throttle, his ship lurched forward with increased speed as he settled into his launch vector. Waiting a tick longer, he centered the targeting crosshair directly onto the bridge viewport just as Lock's torpedo slammed into the shields and overwhelmed them, causing a rippling explosion across the entire length of the now destroyed shields. Bulldog smiled as he smashed down the left Auxiliary trigger, belching out his final torpedo. Killing his boost and rolling left, he triggered a dead-drift to put the entire length of the cargo train into his forward arc. Mashing his right Aux, he started spraying the last of his Armek rockets into the now unprotected containers.

"All big ships are busted, Lead!"

"One pair has broken off, One!"

"I see it, stick with me, Two."

"They're coming around! Nine o'clock high! Seven! Coming in on our six!"

"I see it, hang in there," Jalb soothed as he continued to nose in on the aft of the lone TIE he'd been targeting.

Starfire wobbled a bit as she continued to track the two TIEs bearing in on them, but her discipline held as she stayed on Jalb's port-aft wing.

Jalb triggered a surgical quad burst, incinerating the TIE he'd been after. "Two, break right! One and Two are defensive!"

"Five is on your Seven, One. Keep them turning."

"Keep him turning, Lead," Thanatos said, his voice almost gleeful. "I almost have him!"

The two aft class four haulers were smoldering wrecks and ruined cargo littered the aft half of the convoy. One of the Zeta-class haulers had the misfortune of colliding with one of the free-floating containers that must have housed coaxium or rhydonium, as both the container and the shuttle vanished in a bright flash of white light.

"Watch that debris, Rogues," Bulldog warned after he blinked his vision clear. Even with the visor, he'd still seen spots during the aftermath.

"Got your target!" Thanatos cheered as one of the TIEs pursuing Jalb pinwheeled off to the side missing one panel.

"Splash the last TIE!" Jasted shouted soon after, cleaning up the last of the TIE escort.

"Where did THAT come from?!" Starfire cursed. Immediately, their targeting computers accepted her ping.

An icy grip tightened around Bulldog's stomach. An Imperial Star Destroyer was closing in from the direction of the base, and would be within range momentarily. He fell behind the nearest Zeta and started pumping his burst lasers into its aft until it broke apart at the seams.

"Fighters will launch soon, One," Thanatos warned.

"Pick up the remaining targets on the double!" Jalb ordered.

Lock boosted ahead to catch up with one of the fleeing haulers and started peppering it with overcharged laser blasts. The shields folded under the withering assault, finally allowing his shots to melt the pilot's compartment and vent the entire ship to vacuum. The ship tumbled wildly out of control, presenting the Rogue with a prime angle on the cargo compartment underneath the ship, exposing it to more pinpoint fire.

The New Republic fighters started burning down their targets as efficiently as possible, taking down another two ships in quick succession. Bulldog attempted to target the next nearest ship, but as he squeezed the trigger his lasers refused to fire. "What gives?"

Weight hooted a reminder, flashing the green X around that ship on his HUD.

"You gotta let me get one shot in to make it believable!" Bulldog whined, slowing his ship to stay in prime firing position.

A lock started pinging his own ship before Weight could respond, causing him to immediately jerk his ship in a random direction. "Where was that lock coming from?"

On Bulldog's CMD, two GAT-12 Skipray "Blastboats" appeared in the image. Looking down at the range, he saw they were almost on top of him, having appeared out of nowhere from the aft of the convoy. Both ships unleashed their three ion cannons and two laser cannons in sequence as they attempted to track his ship at maximum range.

Reflexes took over as he broke into the attack and flew underneath both heavily armed ships. "Two bloats in the AO!" Bulldog shouted, attempting to reacquire one of the ships so he could start attacking. However, before he could get into an adequate firing position, the other Blastboat had looped around and begun painting his ship with another missile lock. "I'm defensive!"

The tone solidified. Weight squealed.

Missile!

***

CRS Vigilant Ready Room

The room was in chaos. Wall, floor, and ceiling panels were pulled off in various locations around the room as the different pilots picked through them. Animal and Mustang were almost side by side as they were nearly waist deep into their wall panels as they collaborated on that area of the room. Talon and Bone were perched precariously upon overturned couches as their heads disappeared into the ceiling. Occasionally one of the pieces of furniture would wobble, forcing one of the younger pilots to brace themselves with their hands in case their impromptu ladder toppled over. Silence stood over by the pool table and attempted to catalogue the various devices and wires that had already been pulled, while Shadow and Damak continued to examine the room for likely places they'd have hidden bugs themselves. Gremlin still stood at the door, visibly fretting over all the damage and work she'd have to do to put things back to normal.

Frosty, however, appeared lost. He was clearly out of his depth, and after a moment of attempting to utilize the bug detector he'd retrieved from Spook it was clear he couldn't get it to work properly. Instead, Mustang had ripped it out of his hands and run it through the paces around the room, detecting a few more bugs in the process.

"So, uh… If you won't be needing me any more?" Frosty ventured hopefully.

Animal pulled his head out of the wall and looked his way, shaking dust bunnies off of his shoulders. "Actually, Flog, I need some extra light over here. Bring that flashlight and stick it through this hole."

Frosty's shoulders slumped, but he grabbed the flashlight as requested and trudged over slowly.

"Huh," Bone mumbled. "I used one of these babies to case a bank for a B and E once," he said, his voice muffled by the remaining ceiling panels between his head and the rest of the room. Shortly after, he held out a bug in one hand while he kept his head above the ceiling proper and continued to look at the wiring.

"Bank job?" Talon questioned.

"Had to case the joint so I could figure out the schedule and plant some forged documents into their data networks. Sophisticated anti-slicing detection."

"Why not just steal the money?"

Bone chuckled. "I was, just not with a blaster and not from their safe. Walked in the next day and cleaned out the fake account as if I were a legitimate account holder switching banking institutions. Did that trick quite a bit."

"Frosty, grab that, will you?" Silence asked from the pool table, pointing toward Bone.

Frosty halted and looked at Silence, and then at the bug that Bone was holding out. He gestured toward Animal with the flashlight as he arched an eyebrow, unsure which job they wanted him to do first.

"Got another one behind this panel," Mustang said as he pointed toward the wall he was near. "Frosty, bring me a multi-tool and get this panel off."

Frosty again looked at the new task that had been given to him, and sighed loudly. This day was getting worse by the minute.

***

Nostradyme System- Bulldog's X-wing

"12 Squints inbound, 4 klicks!" Jasted called out.

"Five, Six, break up that formation!"

Bulldog was drenched in sweat. He'd evaded the first missile by threading the needle through some heavy cargo debris, but both Blastboats had used that time to form back up and reacquire him for another lock. "Can use some help back here!"

Weight screeched again.

Missile! Missile!

"For the love of-!" He wrenched his stick back and kicked down on his rudder to slew his ship into a loose spiral as he attempted to ascertain the location of the new threats in relation to him and the rest of the convoy debris. Up ahead, Lock, Jalb, and Starfire were hurriedly attempting to destroy the last few Zeta shuttles, but the TIE threat ahead was closing in faster than expected. The three X-wings focus-fired on the front two shuttles, slagging them quickly under the combined assault.

"Splash two freighters!" Starfire exulted.

"One, we got two squints. Rest are burning for your six!" Thanatos warned.

"Pop your jammers and pick off a few more, then head to expo alpha! Two, Nine, let's get that last freighter and help out the Bucc."

The last target they were allowed to destroy was closer to Bulldog than the rest of them. Doing some quick mental calculations in his head, he kicked over and put the ship's aft in his sights. It took all of his combat awareness to mentally track both the two deadly warheads burning hard for his ship as well as the last Zeta-class target.

The ship carrying the wookiee slaves seemed to read his mind as it angled in on his intercept and started lacing the area with a constant stream of fire from the five laser emplacements on its frontal arc.

"Come on!" Bulldog cursed as he broke under the stream of fire and then reacquired his carefully calculated vector. "Weight, what's the intercept on those missiles now?"

Weight hooted as he highlighted the intercept point on his HUD. The red marker was just before he'd reach his target, indicating he wouldn't make it in time. Weight hooted and then warbled again.

Missile! Torpedo!

"I've got four warheads tracking my ship!" He checked his sensors for the new targets while also attempting to calculate the amount of boost he'd need to use to outrun the first set of missiles in order to pull off the risky maneuver he was planning. "Weight, what's the intercept of that second set of missiles if I execute a boost on the following heading for fifteen seconds?" Weight plotted the new intercept and placed it on his screen with another, farther red waypoint marker than the first set.

"Lose those missiles, we'll get the last target," Jalb responded.

"I can get this one, One!" Bulldog responded, gripping his throttle tightly as he watched his boost energy slowly charge. The distance of separation between him and the rest of the Rogues had decreased enough for him to catch their end of the engagement visually. He found himself watching their acrobatics as he locked into his vector, though it was still too hard to see who was who from this distance.

"One, watch your six! Squints almost in firing position!" Thanatos warned.

"Two, Nine, break to port! Weave back in on any squints trailing my six!" Jalb ordered, breaking off to starboard to draw pursuit. Lock complied immediately, but Starfire wavered slightly as she at first looked to follow her wingman, but then complied with the order she was given and took the same vector Lock had a split second earlier. The moment's hesitation appeared to work in her favor as one of the TIE Interceptors overshot his approach angle and slewed in front of her. Her snap-shot missed, but she immediately latched onto his six and expertly countered his evasive maneuvers as she worked for a killing shot.

"Two, keep lag pursuit! He's going to turn in on you!" Bulldog warned.

"I just need a second!"

"Give it up, you stubborn bantha!" Lock urged.

"One more second!"

Jasted's A-wing swooped in out of nowhere, still hidden from sensors by his ship's jammer. His strafing run was surgical, sending a dual blast of bolts right into the viewport of the TIE she'd been pursuing just as the ship executed the maneuver she'd been warned about. Had Jasted not been there, the TIE would have slipped underneath her ship and been in a perfect firing position on her aft.

"Got him," Jasted reported dispassionately.

"Thanks, Five, good shooting!"

"Weaving back in on your trailers, One," Lock reported.

"Bringing them back your way, Nine."

"Two, dive!" Thanatos shouted.

Starfire's X-wing pushed over into a sharp dive as ordered, emerald laserfire filling the area her ship had just occupied. Shortly after, the TIE that had fired the shots erupted into a ball of shrapnel as Thanatos' A-wing pounced on it from behind. "Thanks, Six!"

"Head on a swivel, Two," Thanatos admonished gently.

"Five and Six, heading to expo and awaiting orders."

"That ISD… the Glory, is getting close…" Lock warned.

"Another squadron of TIEs just launched!" Thanatos called out.

Bulldog blocked out the rest of the chatter as he focused on his task at hand. The two missiles were extremely close. His vision tunneled as he locked onto the boost waypoint his astromech had put onto his HUD. His thumb hovered over the toggle as he waited patiently to reach it. Unsure if two concussion missiles would do the job of slagging the cargo shuttle, he started triggering weak bursts from his lasers to lower the shields a bit.

Weight hooted.

"Good luck!" Jalb called out, realizing what Bulldog's plan was at the last moment. "All wings, break contact and exfil!"

Bulldog mashed his thumb down on the boost button and felt himself get slammed into the back of his couch again. He held the boost while fighting his stick to pull himself just slightly out of the path of the shuttle, clearing it with meters to spare. The engine wash buffeted his ship as he crossed near the engines.

Weight howled loudly to be heard above the roar of the Zeta-class engines overhead.

Bulldog killed the boost and side-slipped his X-wing around the rest of the shuttle's bulk. Moments later, the two missiles pursuing his ship slammed into the unprotected hull of the shuttle, shattering it from stern to bow. The payload it was carrying also erupted, enveloping the aft end of his ship as well as the two new warheads tracking his ship.

Weight screamed, matched by Bulldog's own shocked yell.

His engines exited the explosion with additional carbon scoring around the thrust nozzles, and his wings trailed a bit of fire briefly before the flames died out. The two warheads that had been tracking him popped like balloons in the middle of the conflagration, sending their own smaller shockwaves out in all directions and ensuring the rest of the Zeta-class shuttle was completely atomized.

"Whoooo!" Bulldog howled in celebration, before hyperventilating slightly as the realization of just how close he'd been to dying finally reached him. Amidst the wreckage of the convoy, one lone Zeta-class shuttle continued to weave its way to the safety of the approaching ISD.

"Let's go!"

Weight yowled again. Two beeping tones merged into two solid ones.

Missile! Missile! Missile! Missile!

***

CRS Vigilant Ready Room

Nearly every panel was off of the walls and ceilings of the ready room, and a mess of wiring looped down from the exposed areas. Animal and Mustang had cleared off a small table and were writing complicated wire diagrams on the surface. Talon stood nearby, pointing out areas that were not there when he finished renovating the room with Gremlin.

Gremlin, overcome with grief hours ago, had left the area. She just couldn't stand seeing all of her handiwork tossed aside, even though she understood the necessity of it all.

Silence and Bone had commenced the organization of bugs discovered in multiple skews, making their display on the pool table a complicated one for an outside eye to understand. They'd separated them by visual, audio, and combination bugs, as well as the suspected time of planting based on how they were found and how new the wiring was that plugged them into the Vigilant systems.

A trace of the wiring led them to searching the parts of the mainframe they had access to, but whoever had planted the subroutines had hidden their tracks well. Every attempt at an intrusion-track was stymied. Shadow and Damak continued to trace the wiring, hoping to find one set going into a port with reduced obfuscation measures that would allow them to finally figure out where all of this data was going.

Frosty, continuing to be out of his depth, had been relegated to standing out in the hallway with all of the discarded furniture. Without any specialization in computer programming nor any experience with spy equipment, he was deemed surplus labor. Unfortunately for him, Animal would not let him go that easily and pushed him out into the hallway where he currently stood, still fuming.

Footsteps from behind him drew his attention in that direction. He turned, seeing an excited Loth-Cat walking toward the Ready Room. In their hand was a cheap-looking blue bracelet. The exuberant youth held the trinket up high as they rounded the corner to walk into the chaos. "The prize in those… uh…"

Backing away, Loth-Cat looked at Frosty with questioning eyes. Frosty merely shook his head and put his finger to his lips, hoping to spare the youth the same fate he was currently experiencing. Wordlessly, Loth-Cat nodded and quietly trotted back the way they had come.

Frosty's datapad elicited the sound of an old cash register, indicating funds had been transferred into his digital account. Turning around, he caught the eye of an engineering crew-woman as she hefted one of the comfortable chairs over her shoulders. Hunched over, she nodded and winked in his direction before turning around and walking off with her new purchase.

Frosty turned again, hoping that any of the cameras in the hallway would see that he wasn't directly encouraging the looting of the furniture, and he hoped the double blind account he'd set up for this enterprise would protect him with enough plausible deniability if Gremlin came calling later.

Inside, slow progress was being made on bug tracking, but any conclusion was still hours away at best.

***

Nostradyme System- Bulldog's X-wing

Bulldog dove into the asteroid field with nearly reckless abandon. He couldn't afford the slow and steady pace the Rogues had used to reach the ambush position because he had four warheads burning hard for his ship. He needed as many rocks between himself and those missiles as he could get.

"Watch yourselves at this speed!" Jalb cautioned.

Bulldog snorted at the obvious advice, but he couldn't do much more than that as he rolled himself around the bulk of one of the bigger asteroids, slipping out the other side. He hoped the guidance systems on the warheads tracking him weren't advanced enough to detect the obstruction, but he couldn't bank on it and slow down.

A TIE Interceptor screamed in front of his nose, almost forcing him to break out of reflex into another tumbling rock the size of a CR-90 Corvette. "Those fighters followed us in!"

"I see one!" Starfire responded. "On your four-low, Nine!"

"Breaking ten-high!" Lock replied.

"That's it!" Starfire shouted, the sounds of her blasters carrying over with her voice.

"Where are the rest?"

"Something's trying to get a lock!"

"A Lock is trying to get away!"

"Cut the jokes, Nine," Jalb snapped. "Those bloats gotta be nearby..."

Another TIE screamed past, oblivious to his presence as it tried to angle in on Starfire's X-wing. "Watch it, Two! Squint on your tail!"

"Not for long," she replied cockily as she threaded the needle with her X-wing in a tight spiral, boring through the exact center of a gap barely larger than her ship was tall.

"She's good," Bulldog whispered, yanking his stick to the side to roll around an asteroid that had suddenly appeared in his path.

The emerald fire from the TIE slammed into the rocks on either side of the gap Starfire had just slipped through, but none managed to hit her shields. The pilot tried to mimic her maneuver, but caught the lasers on his port solar panels and spun himself into the rock in a small explosion, showering the area with smaller rubble in all directions.

"Almost made it out!" Thanatos' voice called out.

"Make sure the coast is clear!" Jalb ordered. "And prepare to pick off any pursuit as we get clear!"

"I'm out!" Jasted reported. "Clear skies!"

Four explosions erupted from somewhere behind Bulldog, followed by an unexpected fifth. Weight hooted triumphantly.

TIE Interceptor caught in warhead explosion.

"Missile problem solved," Bulldog muttered as he attempted to focus on not repeating the mistake of the TIE Interceptor he'd just watched pursuing Rogue Two. Rather than attempt to repeat her fancy maneuver, he rolled his ship and skimmed around meters above the surface. Weight hooted a warning. He knew what it was, but he still hazarded a look at the console to double check.

Fighter on your tail!

"I've picked up a tail!" Bulldog grunted as he narrowly avoided slamming into another tumbling rock. As he recovered from that maneuver, green lasers filled the space around him as the fighter on his tail attempted to burn him down. Simultaneously, Weight started a halting chirruping sound to indicate one of the blastboats was attempting a lock. "These guys don't quit!"

"Keep coming!" Starfire shouted.

"What, you think I'm going to turn around?!"

More explosions from somewhere behind him startled him, but the laserfire kept coming, some of the shots peppering his shields. The near misses showered his ship in fractured bits of superheated rock, plinking off his hull and viewport enough to be distracting. He wrenched his head around to try and spot the TIE still firing upon him.

"Three of them just ate rocks!" Jalb cheered. "I'm clear!"

Another explosion erupted from close behind Bulldog's ship, bucking him in his couch. The lock tones cut off, but the moment he cleared the rock he'd cut around, they resumed again. "I can't shake this lock!"

"Got him!" Starfire shouted.

"Two! Break right!" Thanatos called out.

"Rock!" Lock's voice called out.

"What?"

"Roll!"

Bulldog rolled his ship out of reflex as he brought his head around. His eyes widened.

"Roll harder! Rock ROCK ROCK!"

Bulldog pulled up on his stick and killed his throttle, giving his ship just enough clearance to make it past the new obstruction he'd almost plowed into. Beyond, he saw nothing but open space. A massive explosion erupted from somewhere close behind his ship, jarring him forward in his cockpit as his nose dipped down. He recovered just enough to avoid plowing into the surface of the massive asteroid. "What in blazes was that?!"

"They're dumbfiring torps at you!" Jasted responded.

"I see the Bloats!" Lock reported. "Pinging!"

"Nice ping," Jalb replied. "Firewall, Dog! Bring them right into our killzone!"

Bulldog trusted the instincts and command of Rogue Leader, slamming his throttle forward and holding a steady course toward open space. He breathed a sigh of relief as the last of the asteroids blurred past his cockpit. The cool feeling was short-lived, however, as the clipped tone of a missile lock attempt resumed in his cockpit. "They're trying for another lock!"

"Stay the course," Jalb soothed.

"Two Interceptors remaining. Rest must have turned back," Thanatos reported.

"Five, Six, take the Squints. Two, Nine, let's flank these bloats. Execute!"

The tone rose in volume and tempo. Bulldog trusted his commander, but the stressful feeling of being a target still made his stomach tie itself in knots. Weight, likewise, seemed to trust what was going on and wasn't hooting an alert. Instead, a camera view from Rogue Leader's X-wing filled his CMD.

On the screen, Jalb's nose pitched down, coming down right on top of the lead blastboat. From either side, Lock and Starfire's X-wings closed in undetected. In an unspoken order, all fired overcharged quad bursts in unison. The topside turret of the target attempted to track Jalb's ship, but he expertly rolled around the initial burst of return fire while continuing to keep his reticle centered on the target.

"Splash one!" Jasted crowed.

"Got his wing," Thanatos reported.

"Break off, Two," Jalb warned. "You're about to cross the nose of that second bloat!"

"I'll be fine!"

The withering assault from three angles finally penetrated the strong shields of the last blastboat, and Jalb's surgical quad burst from above immolated the pilot in the cockpit, venting the rest of the ship and crew to space once the flames died down. Lock and Jalb immediately broke off their run and targeted the last threat. Starfire continued to bore in, pounding the dead ship with her lasers as she tried to hit the power plant or fuel cells for a big explosion.

"Five and Six inbound!"

True to Jalb's warning, Starfire's ship ate a full broadside from the ship's two forward-facing laser cannons and three wing-mounted ion cannons, imploding her shields and causing her engines to trail sparks as she broke into the attack.

"I'm hit!"

Bulldog executed a sharp drift turn, swapping end for end as he knew he no longer needed to play bait. While he was likely too far away to provide any help, he still wanted to make sure he was nearby for their flight home. As he closed in, dual blasts from the topside laser turret of the bloat attempted in vain to hit one of the A-wings while the pilot hopelessly tried to turn his massive ship around to track Starfire's damaged ship to finish the job in some sort of pyrrhic victory.

Before the massive craft could bring the weapons in it's frontal arc to bear, however, the full might of four New Republic fighters struck. Rapid-fire blasts from Jasted and fully charged plasburst bolts slammed into the shields from the top while burst-fire quad shots slammed into it from the flanks.

The shields valiantly held for a moment, but they overloaded shortly after and the scarlet lasers of the Rogues chewed the ship's hull apart. One burst struck a fuel pod, and the resulting chain reaction atomized the last enemy in the area in a larger than normal explosion.

"Must have had a lot of ordinance left," Lock replied.

"Can't see how, with the amount of firepower they were lobbing at me."

"Two, status?"

"I'm ok," Starfire replied, an alarm warbling in the background. "Shield gen is finished, though."

"All wings, status on hyperdrives."

A chorus of "greens" responded.

"Let's RTB before they come looking for their friends, then."

***

CRS Vigilant Hangar

Bulldog set the borrowed X-wing down where the ground crew had indicated with their light batons. Once the ship settled on its landing gear, he popped the canopy and let the cool air of the hangar wash over him. He'd come down from his adrenaline high on the trip back through hyperspace, but he was still sweating profusely as he frequently relived spikes from the action in his mind's eye.

Closing his eyes and basking in the warm feeling of another mission survived, he took off his helmet and levered himself out of his cockpit. Off to either side of him, the Rogue pilots were already on the ground and congregating nearby, mimicking maneuvers they'd pulled off with complex hand motions. Starfire seemed more reserved than usual, but was smiling politely as the rest of the Rogues engaged her in the post-flight ritual.

He slowly climbed down the attached ladder and savored the feeling when his boots touched down on the solid deck. As he ducked underneath the ship, he saw the garish scar he'd given the ship when he'd kissed the asteroid upon their infiltration flight. Wincing audibly, he followed it with his hand as he worked his way aft. Coming out from underneath the ship, he saw the additional scorching on the nozzles of the 4L4's and whistled. In fact, the entire aft of the ship was a noticeable shade of blackened soot where it had been cooked by the explosion of the shuttle and its cargo he'd used to scrape the missiles off his tail.

"Man, you really know how to bring them back, don't you?" Jasted said as he ambled over, whistling for emphasis. He clapped a gloved hand on Bulldog's shoulder as he pulled him in for a half-hug, rubbing his other gloved hand over the last stubborn bits of stubble on Bulldog's head.

Bulldog spun and extricated himself from the razzing with a smile on his face. "But I bring ‘em back nonetheless."

"How's the cockpit smell?" Jasted asked, a devilish grin on his lips.

Weight hooted sadly from his place still in the astromech socket.

"That bad, huh?"

Thanatos and Lock walked over, admiring the state of the ship as well. Lock ran a gloved finger over the new carbon scoring, pulling it away completely blackened. "Jech is gonna eat you alive, Dog."

Bulldog chuckled. "Guess it's a good thing I won't be flying one of these things in a long time, then, huh?"

"Don't be so sure, Captain," Jalb said as he strode over, Starfire in tow. "The way you made Three's ship move was inspiring… and also lucky."

Starfire snorted at that last bit, but her smile quickly vanished.

"Good flying with you again, Cap," Thanatos said, patting Bulldog on the shoulder. With a head nod from Jalb, the two men walked off on their own, talking closely.

Jasted sucked in a breath as the jovial mood had passed. "Well, looks like it's time for this guy to grab a shower in the Ready Room fresher!"

Bulldog saw Starfire take a halting step away, but then stop as if she was unsure if she wanted to say what was on her mind or not. He pulled out his datapad and looked up at Weight, who was just now being hooked up to the crane for removal by the technicians. "Weight, send me a full recording of that flight from all ships."

Weight hooted affirmatively as he worked, ignoring the magnetic clamp attaching itself to his dome. After a moment, he sent the hefty data packet wirelessly to Bulldog's datapad.

Seeing the file downloaded, he nodded and walked up to Starfire. "Here," he said as he thrust his datapad into her hands roughly. "Homework."

"What's this?" She asked, looking dubiously at the datapad as if it were a bomb primed for detonation.

"It's time for you to learn how to be a Rogue," he replied gruffly. "Fancy flying and fluky kill totals are one thing, but if you can't keep your eyes open and follow flight orders flawlessly, you're going to get yourself killed. Or worse, somebody else." After a moment of silence, his face softened slightly, and he smirked. "Look, if you want, I'd be more than happy to take a look at things with you over a drink at the SSD."

Anger flitted across Starfire's face. "You skrogging sleemo! If you think-" her mouth hung open as she intended to say more, but a sharp glare from Bulldog stopped the words in her throat.

"No. I'm not trying to hit on a junior rank, here. I'm not interested in throwing my career away. Get to learning before you get somebody killed, Rook," he said as he turned on his heel and stormed off.

Lock sidled over to her and put a hand on her shoulder. "Look, we're all tired of seeing new Rogues die because they don't have enough experience," he said kindly. "Too many lost friends, or hotshots that died before they could become friends..." He nodded off toward Bulldog's retreating figure. "He really isn't that bad of a teacher, even if he does smell like a Gamorrean in heat," he said loudly with a grin, one that Starfire matched in kind.

"I heard that!" Bulldog called out over his shoulder as he continued walking toward the ready room.

Starfire looked at the datapad and clutched it with both hands to her chest as she let Lock nudge her gently toward the Ready Room.

***

CRS Vigilant Ready Room

"WHAT IN CORELLIA'S NINE HELLS IS GOING ON HERE!?" Admiral Tolden yelled as he saw the state of the Ready Room. He was extremely pale and surprisingly sweaty compared to his usual level or angry demeanor. The latter was usually marked by a red-faced scowl and multiple veins appearing on his forehead. The lack of those veins was conspicuously noticeable to those that had been chewed out by the man in person.

The Rogues froze in place as they surveyed the disaster before them, taking in the complete disassembly of almost every wall, ceiling, and floor panel as they filtered in carefully. Jalb and Thanatos carefully stepped along the raised deck seams, careful to avoid twisting an ankle or falling into the mess of wiring in the sub-floor.

Bulldog barked out a laugh the moment he walked into the room, echoed by Jasted, Lock, and Starfire as they too seemed to finally realize the absurdity of it all.

"What is so funny?!"

"Nothing, Admiral," Bulldog said, not even making an effort to wipe the smile off of his face. He picked his path carefully as he traversed the room. As he reached the other side, he saw a sullen Frosty out in the hallway, still guarding a pile of furniture that didn't seem like it included all of the furniture that used to be in the room.

"Captain," Jalb's voice called out.

Bulldog stopped and looked over his shoulder. "Yeah, Ell Tee Cee?"

"Great flying with you. Really missed seeing what random crock of shite you pull out of your choobies to make it back."

"We should do it again sometime," Thanatos added, laughing at the colorful language of his OC.

Bulldog smirked as Tolden let out a howl of rage to interrupt the moment, storming out and shouldering him out of the way slightly. Shaking his head and chuckling at the rage, he looked back up at the five Rogues assembled precariously in the room. "I'll always be here when you need me."

Sending a lazy salute their way, he turned and headed off down the hall, gingerly stepping over the furniture in his path.

***

Two Hours Later…
CRS Vigilant SSD

Bulldog ambled into the bar, still slightly wet from his shower. He'd been in a hurry to grab a drink and catch up with any of the Buccaneer pilots that may be in attendance, but paused as he saw none of his pilots.

Frowning slightly, he settled on heading toward his usual booth in the bar. His frown lessened when he saw the shock of white hair belonging to the occupant of his usual seat. Leaning in, he whispered, "you're in my chair."

"Kark off," Lock replied, holding a straight face in return. Eventually, both men broke at the same time and started laughing heartily. Lock slid over to admit his friend into the booth. Almost instantly, a double pour of bourbon was set down on the table in front of him by a server droid.

"That's service," Bulldog said as he picked up the laser-cut crystal glencairn glass and appraised it thoughtfully. Looking at Lock, he held his glass in that direction. The two men clinked their drinks together and took a deep draught.

"This has been the longest three months of my life," Lock said after both men had set their drinks down.

Bulldog nodded in an exaggerated fashion, remembering their first scuffle after Endor taking place after a similar interaction. He smiled wistfully. "Yeah."

Lock took another pull from his ale. "Who'd have thought things would turn out the way they have?"

Bulldog shook his head and took a drink. "Yeah, what are the odds on that?"

Lock's face straightened. "Never talk odds with-"

"A Corellian, yeah," Bulldog interrupted with a laugh. "I've heard that one before."

Both men laughed heartily as they continued to drink in silence for a spell after that, different memories flooding through both of them. After both of them finished their drinks, Lock nudged Bulldog on the shoulder and nodded with his head toward the bar. "Take a look."

Bulldog followed Lock's eyes, and his gaze came to a rest on Starfire, staring intently at Bulldog's datapad as she nursed some sort of ale of her own. Looking back at Lock, he inclined his head with raised eyebrows.

Lock thought a moment, looking away to motion for two more drinks. Looking back at Bulldog, he nodded. Wordlessly, both men rose to their feet and intercepted their drinks from the server droid en route to Starfire's table.

She looked up and flinched at the sight of the two men, making a move to turn the datapad slightly as if to hide the screen. She brushed her wavy red hair out of her eyes and met their gaze with a stern glare of her own. She looked at the two men expectantly, but her patience wore thin. "Well? Come to gloat?"

Bulldog chuckled. "See, that right there is the problem."

Starfire scoffed and her green eyes flared with anger. "What, am I not deferential enough to your standards?"

Lock made to play peacemaker, but Bulldog stopped him with a hand on his chest. Looking back into her eyes, he smiled cockily. "No, your lack of patience is the problem. You gotta learn to wait for things to come to you, in life and in the cockpit. Stop pressing things so hard."

Starfire prepared to retort in a snarky fashion, but she found that the words weren't there. Instead, her mouth hung open slightly as she attempted to suss out the angle Bulldog was taking in this interaction.

"See, that's better," Bulldog said magnanimously as he took a healthy drink from his glass. "You waited this time, and I bet your next remark will be wittier."

Starfire snorted. A look of horror flitted across her face as she recovered herself quickly. "I was going to say that it's tough to be patient when your target is moving slower than a shaak in a Naboo swamp."

Bulldog looked at Lock with wide eyes and feigned grabbing his chest and stumbling under the weight of her verbal assault. "Direct hit."

Starfire laughed in spite of herself, and Lock also chuckled. He looked at the seat next to her and motioned with his free hand and a raised eyebrow. Starfire nodded, and both men took a seat flanking her at the table.

"What are you drinking?" Bulldog asked as he finished his own, then looked at Lock. "Keep up," he said with mock derision in his voice.

Lock chugged his own ale, and let loose a low, warm belch.

"I was drinking a Corellian Ale," Starfire replied.

"Excellent," Bulldog responded as he looked at Iggy behind the bar. "Igs, two Corellian ales and a pour from my stash, my good droid!"

"What are you looking at?" Lock asked, motioning toward the dimmed datapad screen. He seemed to already know, but he didn't want to come across like a know-it-all.

Starfire shrugged, and then boosted the brightness of the display. Both men leaned in close, and then leaned away after they identified the flight recording from Jasted's A-wing during the end of their strike before the exfiltration. It was the moment in the mission where she'd been told to let go of her target and she'd ignored the order. The bird's-eye view from Jasted's ship as it approached showed just how bad of a position she had found herself in, and it was clear that she had been replaying this moment over and over again before they'd come over.

"Here's the good news, Kat," Bulldog said as their drinks arrived at the table. "The battle order and briefing stuff can and will be learned with experience. Soon that shab will be second nature to you, freeing up your brain to be more aware of your surroundings."

Starfire nodded politely, sipping her new drink.

Bulldog took a sip of his special bourbon and continued. "Once that stuff becomes second nature, your natural skill will make you a force to be reckoned with. All that's left is for you to keep your eyes up and comply instantly with any orders or maneuvers called out by your wingmen."

Lock nodded in agreement. "No pilot I've ever seen can keep the entire battle in their mind at once. Your blindspots exist, and will most likely always exist. That's what the rest of us are for."

"We keep each other alive," Bulldog said with finality, holding his drink up high. He waited patiently for the two of them to reciprocate. "To the Rogues: past, present, and future!"

Jasted and Mustang filtered into the bar, and made a beeline for their small gathering. "Did we miss a ‘Bulldog Toast'?"

"I need a drink," Mustang sighed, digging the heels of his hands into his eyes. Blinking his vision clear, he shook his shoulders to loosen them up. "Or three."

"Seems like there's always another ‘Bulldog Toast'," Starfire demurred, drawing laughter from all at the table.

Bulldog clapped her on the back none-too-gently. "You catch on quick, kid."

***

CRS Vigilant Rogue Leader's Office

A knock at the door drew Jalb's attention away from the legal text he had been examining for the past hour. Thanatos and Syntax likewise looked up from their newly assigned reading and rolled their shoulders. Jalb cleared his throat into his hand, and then rubbed his eyes. "Enter."

Animal strode through the open door and set a hefty clear bag of wiring and electronic devices on the pile of legal books on his desk, then stepped back. "Still doing some light reading I see."

"Did Mustang provide the help you needed?" Jalb said, ignoring the comment as he looked at the bag in mild confusion.

"He did," Animal replied, pointing at the bag. "There are 31 spy devices in this bag of varying quality and purpose."

"Were these in the Ready Room?" Thanatos asked, though he seemed to already know the answer.

Animal nodded.

"Thirty... One?" Syntax asked. "Seems like a lot of bugs to detect at once."

"My thoughts exactly," Jalb replied, rubbing his chin.

"Some of these weren't even shielded from detection," Animal added. "Even the most rudimentary of detection devices should have identified half of these with a fast sweep."

The room was silent as all men and the droid pondered the implications of the Buccaneer OC's report. Syntax' ocular receptors dimmed as he devoted processing power to the task. Thanatos shifted in his seat uncomfortably.

After a moment, Jalb cursed quietly as it finally hit him. "Are you saying that the room hasn't been properly swept in a long time?"

Animal nodded gravely. "It would seem so, sir. All of us agree, there is just no way that some of these devices wouldn't have been found with even the most basic of sweeps."

"Who knows about this?"

"The pilots I requisitioned for the task."

"Nobody else?" Thanatos asked, as if he couldn't believe that the amount of destruction he'd seen the state of the Ready Room in could have been done by just Animal's team.

"Didn't know who I could trust outside of the wing, so we kept it compartmentalized," Animal responded.

"Keep it that way," Jalb responded with a curt nod. "We'll have to figure out how high up this goes before we make a move."

All men were silent as they pondered the implications Jalb was apparently levying at their command staff.

Jalb's jaw set as he nodded once more to himself. "Have your team place your own bugs back in the room after it's put back together, and let's see if we can't catch ourselves a spy."

***

CRS Vigilant Brig

Bulldog stumbled into the brig, nodding to the MP on guard absentmindedly as he passed the stone-still guard. He took a curious look into each cell as he passed, looking for the one that held the specific being he wanted to see. After passing a few empty cells, he reached the last one in line and came to a stop outside.

Major Andrew "Dobber" Dobson sat alone in his cell, cross-legged on the floor. A month's growth had made his face shaggy with a beard that made him look rather rakish; much different from his usual clean-cut by the book self. His eyes were closed as if he were in some sort of meditative trance.

"Hey, Major," Bulldog slurred quietly. He waited a polite amount of time for his words to be acknowledged, but seeing no result he raised his voice and tried again. Dobber still didn't respond, though his emotionless eyes opened and stared straight ahead.

"Hey! Major Shavit!" Bulldog shouted, hoping his childish attempt at name calling would elicit a reaction from the imprisoned Rogue pilot. "Paging Major Shavit!"

Dobber still looked forward, not reacting to the slight.

Bulldog pursed his lips. He shook his head as he attempted to think of a reason to continue trying to reach out to the man whose ship he'd flown earlier today.

"I almost got my skrogging ass killed because of you," Bulldog said quietly as he put his back to the door, no longer caring if Dobber reacted to his words. "Got pulled into a mission. It went bad. Scratched and burned up your ship, but it's still in working order." He took a break, taking a pull from his flask to gather his thoughts.

Thinking of nothing else, he shook his head and kicked the door with his heel as he propelled himself away from the door. "I'm sorry, Major. I really wish I could help you. You may not believe me, but I do. You'll be out of here soon enough, though, and I guess you'll go it alone and figure it all out yourself."

He took a few steps down the hall, but stopped. "New girl handled herself well. Almost bought the farm a few times, but managed to pull through. She's got talent," he said as he took another pull from his flask. Screwing the cap on tightly, he pocketed the flask and took a look back. It seemed like a new expression had filled Dobber's face, but he had drunk a bit too much to tell for sure. "Needs seasoning, though. Hope you guys can keep her alive long enough to get it."

He turned and continued to walk away.

"Seeya, Rogue Three."

The End