"How much longer are we going to be in hyperspace?"
The question jerked Dov Retanna out of his reverie. The Duros turned towards the human in the U-Wing's pilot chair. "I..um...I don't..." Dov had thought the man had been asleep; this was the first time he'd heard the pilot's voice.
"The timer is locked on my readout." The pilot's eyes were hidden behind the glare reflecting off of his helmet's orange visor. "I'm assuming it's not on yours, because it would be dangerous to not have someone in the cockpit with an idea of how long the hyperspace trip would be."
Dov's brain finally caught up to the situation, and he turned towards his instrumentation. "Right. Right! Uh...about fifteen more minutes."
The pilot nodded, folding his arms across his chest. His jumpsuit wasn't the traditional bright orange that Dov had become familiar with in the Rebel Alliance Starfighter Corps; instead, it was a charcoal grey with bright gold trim. Dov had also never seen the sigil painted on the pilot's helmet – a human skull in a three-pointed hat, with a pair of curved objects resembling archaic blasters crossed beneath. "Any idea what happens then?"
Dov blinked, easing back in his chair. "Uh...they didn't brief you?"
"What happens," the lieutenant's voice said from just behind them, "is we wait for our ride." Bremmer Gorlund had stepped up on the crew ladder, pulling his head even with the flight team. He was wrapped in black Alliance SpecFor gear, dressed for a tactical ground insertion.
"We're in our ride," the pilot answered, hand sweeping the console as if to show the U-wing to a prospective buyer.
"Ah, yes," Dov interjected, "but this craft has been outfitted with a few new special modifications that will..."
Gorlund cleared his throat, smoothing his dark moustache with two fingers. "...that will allow us most of the way to our target undetected."
The pilot looked between the pair, then turned back to the viewport. "SpecFor."
"Look," Gorlund continued, "all you need to worry about is flying the ship. Everything difficult my team will be accomplishing. The technical sergeant here will take care of utilizing his modifications when appropriate. You just fly."
"If it's such a simple job, why the request to Starfighter Command? Surely SpecFor has pilots."
"Just get us on-site." Gorlund shot a glare at Retanna, then dropped off the crew ladder, moving back into the commando-filled cargo area.
Dov looked across the cockpit to the pilot, noting the human's mouth was drawn in a tight line. "I'm sorry," he murmured, "...the lieutenant wasn't aware that Starfighter Command was going to be assigning a pilot. He had requested someone he has worked with in the past."
A moment passed before the pilot replied. "No worries. I think something else is at play here."
The Duros nodded, turning back to the instrumentation. "Well, ten minutes until realspace. Um...is there something I should call you?"
"Probably. Since we're sticking to ranks...I'm a Captain."
The angle was disorienting.
Dov could feel the pressure cuffs on his flight suit working to force his blood "down" through the rest of his body. The commando team in the cargo area wasn't quite as fortunate with their outfits, but Dov had worked the anti-gravity system to provide as much relief as possible. "Above" them was the planet Bronsoon, green-and-brown surface peeking through a billowing mass of swirling cloud cover. "Below" them was the Old Reliable, a bulky Action IV transport whose shields were still glowing with the effort of atmospheric entry.
Dov glanced at the pilot. His face was red as his flight suit's systems worked to even his circulation, but there was a hint of a smile and Dov couldn't tell if it was that he was flying or enjoying the sounds of discomfort from the cargo bay.
"Stand by to detach the magnetic clamp."
Dov's hands leapt to the controls. "Ready to detach."
"Please ping our ride and let them know their mynock appreciates it. Release."
Dov punched in the command code to cut power to the magnetic clamp that had been installed on the bottom of the U-wing. For a moment, nothing happened, and then the silhouette of the larger freighter titled in the viewport and the center of gravity below them shifted. The U-Wing nosed down. Dov fought back against his stomach lurching, typing the message into the tight-beam pulse they had used for direct communication to the freighter, then leaned back into his seat and gripped his armrests.
The pilot snorted lightly, his smile growing as the U-Wing fell through the clouds. "Two minutes until flight power. Hold on; those clouds may make things a little choppy."
Dov's overlarge red eyes closed, his grip tightening on the armrests. Behind him, in the cargo area, he could hear several of the commandos groaning; one of the rumblings sounded like it was coming from Shiioghna, the massive grey-furred Wookiee. The U-wing slipped into the clouds and the captain's warning came true. The ship started to rattle and jostle as the upper atmosphere winds began to buffet it.
"One sensor ping, please."
Dov forced his eyes to open, and he reached out to flicker the main switch on the sensor board. He watched as the readout replied, then reported through gritted teeth. "Sensor board clear; ready for jammer."
"Copy. Next ping in thirty seconds. Standby jammer."
They repeated the procedure through the two-minute free-fall, the last sensor burst coming as the U-Wing burst out of the bottom of the cloud cover. "Sensor board clear," Dov managed.
"Good. Flight power coming up." The captain reached to his own control board; he flipped a few switches and Dov felt power surge through the fighter's frame. His own control boards began lighting up, and the inertial dampeners strengthened, easing the pull of gravity on his body. "Deploying S-foils." The front reaching arms of the U-Wing began to sweep back, out to each side, and the craft started to level out. "Scope negative. Feeding ground telemetry to the targeting computer. Looks like...we are in the pipe. Hundred clicks to the landing zone, nothing big on scope."
Dov looked out the U-Wing's front viewport. They were trailing along a mountain range, the large rocky peaks stretching along in front of them and off their port side. Behind the peaks, the system's sun was setting, casting enormous shadows along the hills and plains that rolled below them. "It's beautiful."
The pilot grunted an agreement. "Reminds me of home. We're starting to pick up transmissions matching open-air broadcasts; I'm guessing that's the city we are putting down here. Can you see if you can pick out the emergency channels as we approach and make sure no one is talking about us?"
"Roger that." Dov reached under the front of his console and pulled a headset free, slipping the contraption over his head and placing the cups over his auditory membranes. A few key commands on his console, and he began sweeping through the auditory broadcasts that the ship's communication receivers were picking up, making notes of the kinds of channels he was finding. He felt a hand on his shoulder and turned; Gorlund had stepped up between the pilot and technician again. Dov slipped the cup off the side of his head near the commando to listen in.
"Ten minutes until we're in the identified landing zone. Fifteen minutes until you can debark."
"Sounds good. The sergeant will stay with you and the U-Wing; my team will leave and be back in eight hours."
The pilot turned. "That's...quite a while to be under wraps."
Gorlund shook his head. "Necessary. We have to infiltrate the city and find our target. That will take time. We're also trying to get out undiscovered, so we will be taking all appropriate precautions to not engage anyone."
"And if we're made?"
Gorlund's eyes narrowed, looking out towards the twinkling lights visible on the horizon. "Alert us and leave. We'll find our own way off world."
Dov caught the Captain's eye roll as the pilot turned back to his controls. "Okay. Fifteen minutes, go strap back in."
"That jammer you were talking about," the captain asked, adjusting the drape of one of the visual shrouds covering the U-wing. "Is it like the 4X-Phantom?"
Dov nodded. His eyes, better suited to seeing things in the moonlight, were focused on the path to the clearing where they had set the fighter down. "Like it, yeah. I've made a few adjustments, though, and the power setup is a little different. Do you...fly A-wings a lot?"
The pilot chuckled. "I did for a bit, but got moved back to Y-wings. I think that's partially why they picked me for this - the attack profile is similar." The human nodded towards the double laser cannons protruding from the craft's cockpit. "But this thing handles like a stunned bantha. Even compared to a Y-wing."
"It...is a unique platform." Dov adjusted his position in the side entry door. "But not best as a dogfighter."
The captain passed him, returning to the fighter's dim red-light illuminated cockpit. "Or an assault fighter. You don't have any ordinance launchers. Although...you could probably rig something."
"Probably. So far, she's been really good at taking modifications. Issue is we don't have many, so we've got to be selective with what we try."
"Ah." The captain nodded, flight helmet off, hand holding one of the headset earpieces to the side of his head away from Dov. "Can't risk losing one to a wiring accident."
Silence followed, settling easily over the clearing. There was a light breeze, and enough moonlight slipped past the clouds to coat the vegetation in a dull shine. Dov settled in for the long haul, letting his gaze drift over the trees, the grass, up into the stars, always watching for more motion than the breeze would generate. Waiting for trouble.
He started when a hand touched his shoulder. He didn't yell, but he turned to the captain and took the cup of steaming liquid that the officer had brought over. He curled his large fingers around the mug and savored the heat, allowing the night breeze to cool the drink before he tried his first sip. The liquid was spiced, smooth and sweet, and he felt the warmth spread from his belly as he drank. The pilot poured his own mug from the keep-warm he'd pulled from the webbing behind his chair and settled back in to monitor the local communication traffic.
He had adjusted a few more times and drank another mug when he finally saw something - a tall, weirdly-shaped form emerging from the darkness at the far side of the clearing. He snapped his fingers twice to get the pilot's attention, then scrambled back into the U-wing proper, drawing his blaster pistol and tucking into the darkness of the ship's hold.
The dim red light in the cockpit had clicked off. The shape kept approaching. Dov felt his grip on the pistol tighten, and then relax. Shiioghna, the Wookiee, was carrying something long in both arms towards the U-wing. "Friendly," Dov called quietly towards the cockpit, then stepped free of the fighter. "Shiio...what's going on?"
The Wookiee replied, keeping his voice low. He was close enough now that Dov could see the burden he bore was a person; a humanoid form that lay unmoving in the Wookiee's arms. He felt the pilot arrive at his shoulder before he heard the human's voice. "What's going on?"
"This is our local contact, been feeding us intel. The team made contact, but were discovered, and she took a blaster bolt. The lieutenant decided that speed was critical, so tasked Shiio with getting her out of harm's way...but he didn't find anywhere to stash her."
"Mother Jungle...get her inside, lay her down on the jump seats." The pilot turned back into the ship, moving to the rear of the cargo area. "Let me see what I can do."
Dov keyed a wall switch that bathed the cargo bay in the dim red standby light. "You're a pilot."
"I started in the medical corps." The captain turned, medpac in hand, moving to where the Wookiee was settling the smaller body in the U-wing's collapsible crew seats. "I mean, they let me transfer to Starfighter Command, so I may not be as good as I hope, but it's worth a look."
"How is she?" Dov tried to split his focus, keeping part of his brain in the headset listening to the comm chatter, while the other glanced towards the captain as he sighed into the pilot's chair.
"Well...her vitals are within human standard, and I think I managed to get the foreign material out of the wound. Problem is, she's not human." The man shook his head, wiping his hands on a towel. "My knowledge of Mirialan biology is...well, we need to get her to a full medical facility as soon as we can. But I've got her under a temperature control blanket and secured pretty well, so I think she'll be okay for now."
Dov nodded, then turned away. "Um...trouble."
The pilot's eyes narrowed. "What kind?"
Dov focused on the chatter he'd stumbled across on the communications band. He listened for a minute, then spat. "They've been made. The lieutenant has given us the evacuation code." He looked back at the captain. "We need to leave."
The pilot nodded, strapping his flight helmet back on. "We will. After we pick them up. Tell them to get as high as they can in whatever building they are in, and dig in. We're on our way."
Dov's eyes widened. "That's not the order - "
"I outrank him. Start the pre-flight." He turned to the commando in the cargo area. "Big guy! Get the shrouds off our back and stowed, and then get that repeater set up. We've got to go pick up your friends!"
Winna Prange always knew she'd die this way.
The BlasTec A280 in her hand was overheating; she could feel her skin blister where she'd held the barrel. She couldn't see her targets anymore through the tears in her eyes, choking on the rancid scent of burnt ozone, frying duracrete, and whatever chemical reagent had been in the grenade the Imperials had hit them with. Behind her, she could hear her spotter Giojene cursing in her native Ryl, popping shots with her blaster pistol blind over the machinery at the advancing Imps.
The A280 stopped, sizzling in the cold night air. The heat sink had failed and the barrel fused. It had fired for the last time.
Winna flinched away from the temperature regulators they'd found cover behind, turning to look at her spotter. Gio's face was streaked with tears, smearing the black paint they'd used to dampen down their visual signature. She met Winna's gaze, hand still pressing the medpack's emergency cuff against her thigh where the stormtroopers had managed to connect a shot, then looked at her pistol.
Winna had signed up for this years ago. A glorious end, striking back at the Empire after all they had taken from her, dying surrounded by fallen Imperials.
Giojene hadn't. This was the Twi'lek's second real sortie, the second she'd been assigned as a spotter for Winna, learning how to conceal themselves, how to blend it with the local color, how to find high-value targets to eliminate, or - like tonight - how to relay information to the team accomplishing the primary objective. Two months ago they'd pulled her out of a cell on a Hutt slave transport, and now she was here, getting ready for a painful execution, hopefully before a more-painful ISB interrogation. Gio's eyes were wide.
Winna held her hand out. "It's gonna be okay, Gio. Look at me. It's gonna..."
Above the approach of the Imperials, a whine cut through the night. Then a roar, and a new weapon announced its presence. A light repeater, from the sound.
Then the U-wing was there.
It crunched up against the roof, engines howling, the side door sliding open. Shiioghna roared again, stepping out of the fighter and opening up with the slung repeater, back towards the Imperials that had been threatening Winna and Giojene. Two other individuals swung out behind Shiio, both heading for the sniper team. Braddock Phail dropped to a knee next to Winna, smiling down at his fellow sniper.
"Time to leave, Wonderful. Meter's running."
Winna barked a laugh, grabbing Braddock's offered arm and pulling herself up. "About time. Thought you had forgotten about us."
"Not on your life." Braddock turned to help get Giojene up and into the arms of his spotter, a Shistavanen called Horrol. "Now let's get out of here. The natives are restless and we've got another pickup on the schedule."
Winna charged to the U-wing. She grabbed the rail just inside the side door and turned to help Horrol into the cargo bay, then Braddock, and finally tapped Shiioghna's shoulder as the Wookiee had backed towards the transport. The light repeater's withering cover fire stopped as Shiio turned to get back on the U-wing, and Winna slammed the boarding door shut as soon as he was clear. She heard the dull thumps as personal weapons fire peppered the side of the starfighter, then yelped and tightened her grip on the rail as the U-wing banked, then dove.
Shiio caught her by the arm. She nodded thanks to the Wookiee as the inertial dampening system caught up to the fighter's maneuver, then pulled herself over to the step behind the pilots. "What's the plan?"
The cockpit was a blaze of warning lights and shouted information, mostly coming from Dov. "Another missile lock!"
"Hit the jammer and hold on," came the pilot's less panicked reply. There was a pause, then the ship lurched to the left, diving down a new street between the city's buildings. "Jammer off; we've broken the lock."
"Jammer off," Dov's voice was shaking. Poor kid hadn't expected this.
"What's the plan?" Winna asked again, louder.
"Tell the Wookiee to get set up in the starboard-side door. We used the port side for the first two pickups; we'll switch it up to try and throw them off."
"My spotter is wounded."
"Little busy at the moment, but the medic is with the main group, so please strap your spotter in and hold on."
"Sounds good." Winna turned to relay the message to Shiio. "Furball, switch sides! We're gonna mix it up..."
"C'mon, MOVE!" Dov implored the main group of commandos from the cockpit.
"Don't think they can hear you," said the pilot, eyes locked on the sensor board.
Dov hissed instead of arguing as another warning light began to flash. "Missiles locking...airborne this time!"
"Those would be the TIEs."
"The- the what?" Dov stammered as he keyed the sensor jammer to break the targeting locks.
The captain didn't turn from the board. "The four TIEs that they scrambled from the spaceport when the shooting started have caught up to us."
Dov felt his stomach drop. "We're not going to get out of this."
"It's not over yet."
"There's no..." The Duros was cut off as a spray of jade-green energy rained down, rocking the U-wing and flinging scraps of duracrete back into the sky. "Ah!"
"Get them onboard!" The captain hissed between clenched teeth, pushing energy from the U-wing's weapon systems back into the shields. "They'll be coming around for another pass!"
Dov looked. Horrol and Braddock had scrambled back off of the U-wing, helping the last members of the commando unit back to their feet and towards the fighter. Shiio and Winna provided covering fire from the open loading doors, pouring energy towards the pursuing Imperial ground forces.
The high-pitched whine of the twin ion engines faded, then began to build again. "They're coming back!" Dov traced the TIEs' loop on the sensor readout, watching the fighters arc back around for another strafing pass.
"Get them onboard!" the captain yelled.
There were several voices, and then Dov heard the cargo door shut. "GO!"
He was shoved back into his copilot's chair as the U-wing leapt forward, the pilot pushing the throttle as far forward as it would go. He heard shouts from the cargo area, then the front viewport was filled with more green fire. The roar intensified, then faded. Smoke curled from the melted armor on the front of the U-wing.
The captain risked a look over his shoulder. "Is everyone accounted for?"
Dov turned. There was no room in the cargo area. The Mirialan was still strapped down on one set of the central crew seats; the other side was full of slumped forms. The rest of the commandos were spaced out around the cargo area, gripping handholds or buckling into the remaining jump seats they could unfold from the walls. Shiio was still strapped in the webbing for the repeater, but Dov could see the Wookiee straining to try to keep steady even with the weapon rig. Someone - Wonderful, Dov thought, defaulting to the sniper's nickname - threw the pilot a thumbs-up, and that seemed to be good enough.
"See if you can dial up the dampening in the cargo area," the captain asked Dov. "Keep it low here; I need to feel the ship's responses. Use the jammer to keep us out of missile locks...we're heading to the spaceport."
The U-wing banked hard, and Dov nodded. "Copy that."
Winna crawled past her fellow commandos, away from the unconscious form of Lieutenant Gorlund packaged into one of the collapsible jump seats, and up to the step between the pilots. Both men were in motion, Dov's hands flickering like wildfire over the control board and the pilot's body rocking with the juking of the U-wing. Winna looked out the front viewport and immediately regretted her decision.
With no other allied craft in the area, their pilot had raced for the only available cover - deeper into the city. They were rocketing down an artificial canyon between rows of tall buildings, banking and rolling to keep out of the sights of the pursuing TIEs. Fingers of green death would occasionally slip past; those that didn't rattled the ship as they pounded against the rear shields and armor.
Winna felt her stomach drop again, although that may have been the stall maneuver the pilot put the ship through. Then she yelped as the U-wing banked hard, swinging down another boulevard for a moment, then back the other way to continue over a different thoroughfare along their original route.
"Tell me there is a plan..."
The pilot nodded. "Heading to the spaceport, then we'll find some cover to gain altitude. Got an idea for getting behind them. In the meantime..." The U-wing rolled again, throwing Winna back the other way, knuckles turning white as she gripped the support bar. "...you may want to strap in."
"No place to do that, Captain," Winna said, gritting her teeth and recentering herself. "All the same, I'll stay up here with you."
The pilot nodded once more, then yanked the throttle back and banked into another hard turn. The world spun on its side. Winna blanched, then the ship tipped the other way and pulled up hard. The maneuver had pulled the U-wing around back the way they had been coming.
And straight at a pair of TIEs.
The Imperial ships hung there for a moment in the forward viewport, as if surprised their quarry had doubled back on them. Red flashes sparked from just in front of the cockpit, tracing toward the lead TIE, and the ship exploded as the U-wing's shots ripped through its hull and overloaded its main generator. The U-wing kicked high on one extended S-foil to slip past the other TIE in the tight confines of the duracrete jungle, and then heaved over to again race towards the starport.
"That might make them mad." The pilot's voice was steady. "Keep an eye for another flight."
Dov grunted something in his native tongue, so engrossed in the ship's systems that he forgot to switch languages. For a blessed few moments, the U-wing corrected to fly fairly straight and level.
And then they were out of the city.
The pilot began his jukes and evasions again. Fire from the three remaining TIEs intensified, but with nothing boxing them in the captain was able to keep the U-wing's shields out of the worst of it.
"There. GR-75. Perfect."
Winna ducked to change her angle out of the viewport. The hulking form of a GR-75 transport hung in the sky, rising to clear the spaceport and the dogfight that was approaching. "Perfect for what?"
"Standby the magnetic clamp. Flutter the jammer like you've been doing; when I tell you, all go on the jammer is one, then two is the clamp. Shields and engines until then."
Dov nodded. "You're slowing down."
"Yeah. Gotta draw them in for this." The U-wing began to climb, still juking. The TIEs continued pursuit, but they came in waves, running in for a strafing attempt, and then overshooting and needing to loop back around. Winna watched as red warning indicators began to flash on the console, wondering how many would light up before they exploded.
"One more pass," the pilot mumbled, eyes on the sensor board, the GR-75 now looming large in the viewport.
As if on cue, the screaming sound of the TIEs grew louder, and the U-wing was buffeted by laser fire. "Shields are gone," intoned Dov, matching the pilot's demeanor.
"Copy. Hard stop now."
He throttled all the way back, and they watched as the TIEs rocketed past them. The throttle was then hammered forward and the U-wing leapt in pursuit. The Imperial craft split, two banking port and the third heading starboard, but the U-wing ignored them and blazed closer to the large transport.
"Jammer. All on now."
Dov clicked a key and several of the red lights on the control board winked out. "Jammer going."
The U-wing slipped along the GR-75, the hull of the larger transport filling the bottom portion of the viewport. Winna held her breath as the nose of the large craft slipped into sight, and then they were past it and tucking underneath.
There was a buzz and then a clang as the U-wing clamped onto the underside of the GR-75.
"Kill the jammer."
Dov flipped the switch back. The scope lit up, and the TIEs roared past.
Another switch, and the U-wing broke free, dropping and swinging around.
Right behind the TIEs.
Red lasers flashed. The TIE at the rear was the first target. The fire from the U-wing cut the cockpit ball from the starboard solar panel. The Imperial started a weird, spinning fall back towards the planet. The rebel fire caught the second TIE flush, ripping into the rear of the ball and shredding the fighter as the energy systems overloaded. The third TIE broke starboard, arcing around to set up another pass.
The air in the cargo bay went frigid as the starboard-side gunner window opened. Shiioghna roared, unleashing the repeater out the side of the U-wing. The fingers of red fire caressed the side of the TIE, sparking as they blew pieces of the solar array off and something flared and began trailing smoke.
The captain banked them to that side as the TIE continued away, slipping past the repeater's range. "Something's on fire. He won't follow." He turned to look at Winna. "Please ask him to button up; we're about to break atmosphere."
Winna let go of the crash bar and finally smiled. "Copy that."
In summation, while the U-wing appears to be a more than adequate platform for covert (or even not covert) insertion and recovery, that is currently not Buccaneer's mission. The multi-crew role will also put a strain on our already-thin pilot corps, and the additional training required to make certain our current crew roster is up to speed on yet another cockpit layout is not something we can carve out with our current mission load.
Captain Adam "Guardian" Burns, Buccaneer Leader, pushed away from his data terminal and reviewed the report. He read over his words again, reaching for his keep-warm for another mug of Ithorian green.
He stopped. The keep-warm was empty.
The door chime to his modest office aboard the Liberty sounded, and he couldn't keep the annoyance out of his voice. "Enter."
The door slid open, and Chris "Electro" Shock, Corsair Squadron Commanding Officer, leaned in. "Welcome back, G-man. How did it go?"
Adam's blue eyes narrowed as he looked again from the keep-warm to his friend. "How did what go?"
Electro's grin grew. "Whatever you got whisked away on. I don't know a lot, only that they were looking for an experienced pilot used to "not fast." Figured someone from Bucc, but didn't know it would be you."
Guardian rolled his eyes. "It was successful, for what it was." He gave it another moment of thought, then keyed the terminal to transmit the report. "Not so much for others."
"Well, come on buddy. All-wing briefing starts in five." Electro patted the door frame.
Guardian groaned. "I've been back for twenty minutes. I need food. And caf. And...a nap. A shower."
"You've got an XO, right?" Chris grinned, stepping back. "What do you think command is for?"
Guardian pushed himself to his feet and pulled his comlink from his pocket. "Valkyrie, this is your CO. Bring food and caf to the briefing. For me. For you too if you want. But I'm ordering you to bring it for me."
He keyed the com off before his XO could reply, walking around the desk to the door. "You're right. Maybe I could get used to this command thing."
Chris clapped a hand down on Adam's shoulder. "It's great, buddy. Now, let's go find out how we're saving the universe today."