First Lieutenant Chris 'Jalb_k' Reynolds paced his cabin, all six
steps of it.
Chris continued to pace for several more minutes, then returned to stand in front of the crystal player on his desk. He activated the holo and leaned forward with his knuckles on the desktop in front of him. His face was grim and strangely troubled as he watched the projection of the obviously tall, beautiful auburn haired woman before him. She spoke for a few minutes while the image changed to show a lad of about eight or nine standard years running towards the viewer. He had tousled sandy hair, clear blue eyes, the rangy build and musculature of a typical prepubescent boy and lightly tanned skin. What set him apart in Chris' eyes was his grin; a mischievous grin, a grin that had any of his wing-mates seen would have said the holo was of Jalb_k as a boy. The image returned to the woman, she still spoke calmly but with a pleading edge. Creases of worry marred her brow, and this was the source of Chris' concern. He stared at the spot where the holo had been for a moment after the image faded and then suddenly moved with a sense of purpose. He went to his locker and pulled some items of equipment from it, along with some extra clothing and toiletries that he threw together into his 'black' bag. At the same time he issued orders to his astromech droid.
"Skippy, go down and preflight our ship, but do it casually! If anyone asks, you’re just doing routine service checks. I don't want people to know we're going anywhere until it's too late." The door wooshed smoothly open behind him as his droid left. He threw a last few items into his bag and left in the direction of Rogue’s armoury. In his haste to move now that he'd made his decision he let his cabin shut and auto lock behind him. He forgot to set his cryptocypher and also left the crystal in the player.
"Keeping the eye in, eh Reynolds?" the quartermaster asked as he handed over Jalb's modified Blastech. Jalb returned the QM's smile.
"Yeah, never know when your gonna need those skills and I don't want to get rusty," he said as he went over the weapon. "I'll return it later QM." With a wave Jalb departed.
Chris stole quietly onto the silent flight deck from the Rogue ready room after grabbing his helmet, noticing Skippy had already managed to get himself into the socket on their cammed X-Wing. He stowed his equipment in the storage compartment under the cockpit, placed his weapon in the holder next to his couch and strapped on his helmet as the transparisteel canopy closed.
"Alright, Skip, this is going to be fast. I want you to compute the shortest, safest and most devious route home. Be ready to jump as soon as we leave the hanger. OK?" There was a warbled affirmative response. Chris rapidly went through his pre-flight minor checks, then brought all main power on in one hit. He spooled the repulsors up and shot forward, leaned on the etheric rudder and slew the craft around to the left and lined up on the hanger exit, neutralised rudder and kicked ahead on full repulsors again. In the space of seconds since his fighter’s power up he was through the magcon and pinned by the hit of full sublight. "Now, Skip!" he yelled to his droid, and starlines appeared, followed by the blue coruscating nimbus of hyperspace.
The ensign on Flight Control called the bridge officer over.
"Sir, I have an anomaly. I had power readings from the port hanger indicating a snub nose set to launch, but I had no authorization or notice, so I switched to visual and got this." The display showed a perfectly normal hanger with no movement whatsoever. "The power readings spiked and disappeared at the same time. I've run a diagnostic and all's fine."
"OK, don't worry ensign, log it as anomalous sensor readings, see if you can find any correlating spikes and leave it to maintenance." With that the bridge officer strode back over to the Captain’s couch, sat and continued his cup of Kaf.
"Woo-Ha! Good drills Skip!" Jalb called as they made good their getaway. He sat back in his couch and looked out at the swirl of eerie blue light dancing around them. After the adrenaline buzz of his stealthy departure he found it hard to correlate his thoughts and fatigue soon washed over him. He tapped a query into the navicomputer and noted the prompt reply. Another 18 hours: six to the first course change then four quick, single hour legs to confuse pursuit then a final long leg home. Yawning he realised it was nearly 0100 ship time so he decided on some kip before the first change. His instructed his R2 unit to wake him before revision to realspace, took his helmet off (not much use in a hyperspace accident) leaned back, closed his eyes and went through a relaxation technique he’d learned years before from a beautiful young, auburn haired girl with sparkling grey-green eyes. He was asleep in minutes…
"Chris, you’ve got to learn to relax, babe."
"How do you mean?" They sat across the table from one another sipping Sundowners, Jess’ favourite drink. Crushed ice with equal parts vodka and white rum topped up with orange juice and lemonade with a final dash of Grenadine. Served in a highball glass it was a refreshing and very mellowing drink and one that Chris had taken a shine to, although he still enjoyed his beer at a temperature just above freezing to cool down on a hot day. Scattered around the cantina in twos and threes were other members of their cadre, mixed in with the usual patrons. This was their end of mission rendezvous, a semi-secure establishment half a city away from their latest action -- an action that saw the local Imperial garrison another thirty Stormtroopers short thanks to a series of command detonated proximity mines with a well-sited linear ambush. It was initiated just as the second troop carrier entered the ‘Kill Zone’. Well executed and followed through the Imperials didn’t stand a chance; it would have been perfect…except for Rob.
Rob was Chris’s section second-in-command, or 2IC, and his best mate. About Chris’s height with an extra couple of kilos and, at 23, couple of years, Rob was a jovial bloke with a twisted sense of humour, much like Chris’s, and they got on famously. It was also Rob that was able to rein his Section Commander in when his intensity started to fuel his desire for revenge. Frustration at being unable to express the pent up anger had always left Chris morose and withdrawn for a couple of days, but the frequency of these attacks were reducing with the amount of solo missions he was taking on the side. Rob had been the man with the remote. It was his responsibility to initiate the ambush through the detonation of the mines. It was no fault of anyone that shrapnel injured him. He was well outside the blast radius and it was plain bad luck that the fuel cells detonated instantly, adding to the lethal fragment zone. Rob took a piece through the right side of his chest as he ducked back behind cover. Blood and air started to fill his thoracic cavity forcing his right lung to collapse, a classic haemopneumothorax. He sat heavily and rolled onto his right side, delaying the onset of tension pneumothorax on the left as he waited for reorg, listening as commands came over his headset.
"Check fire!" The withering hail of bolts on the wreckage ceased.
"Fight through!" This was followed by individual movement orders for each fire team as they ‘pepper-potted’ by bounds across the ‘Kill Zone’, clearing the wreckage as they went, propping on the far side of the clearing.
"Re-org!" They moved as one, fanning out into all round defence, covering their arcs and each other.
"Cas!" There was a brief pause.
"4 OK!" The rest of the section sounded off OK by the numbers.
"Split and Track! Primary RV! 4, with me. Where are ya Rob?" The section melted away, their equipment being broken down and placed into the daypacks they carried on their backs. Rob responded.
"…primary…position." He gasped.
Chris ran over with Jess right behind him. He quickly assessed the situation and had Jess call in for a dustoff while he cut Rob’s shirt away and carried out his primary survey. Conscious. Responding. Patent airway. Breathing compromised, obvious chest trauma; Chris knew what he had to do. He quickly sealed the entrance and exit wounds then introduced a large cannula into the thoracic cavity on the right, second intercostal space above the third rib on the mid clavicular line. There was an audible hiss as he withdrew the stylus and he fixed a small one way flutter valve completing the needle thoracocentesis, and Rob started to breathe a bit easier. He looked up and smiled weakly.
"Sorry ‘bout the stuff around mate."
"No wuckas mate, hardly more than a flesh wound anyway," Chris replied. Jess came up behind Chris and placed her hand on his shoulder were he knelt beside Rob. She bent down, her face next to Chris’, and looked at Rob with a concerned expression.
"Hey buddy." Rob smiled again. "Bad news, 30 minutes till they can effect ‘dustoff’. We need to move. Chris?" He was looking up at the sky with a "why me" look. He shook his head slowly.
"OK. We have a safe house two blocks away, we can carry him between us. Go and give us some cover while I get this gear together." She patted his shoulder, gave Rob a brave smile and moved a few meters away, watching their backs.
"You look good together." Rob said with as much strength as he could muster. Chris looked at him.
"You and Stewart, you make a good couple," he whispered.
Chris finished getting his med kit and their weapons on his back and started to assist Rob to his feet. "Bugger off mate. You’re delirious! She means as much to me as you, but I couldn’t take it further. I feel bad enough with you hurt, now shut up! Jess, let’s get going." Between them they managed to get to the safe house undetected, but Rob’s condition had deteriorated markedly.
"Still ten minutes…damn!" Chris expressed. "Rob, I’m going to have to make another hole, a thoracostomy." Rob was gasping, struggling to draw breath and looking cyanotic. He nodded weakly. Jess kept an eye out with the building’s occupants while Chris went to work. He gave Rob a hypo of local anaesthetic over the fifth intercostal space on the mid-axillary line then got what he needed and gloved up. He grabbed a small blade then, being cautious, traced a finger down from the armpit, counting the rib spaces until he got to the point on the side of the chest where he’d given the local. Satisfied he was in the right spot he made a 3-centemeter incision central to and parallel with the fifth and sixth ribs. He blotted the blood away with gauze then continued to incise into the intercostal muscle. He placed the scalpel down then placed the index finger of his right hand into the wound he had made and pushed it through, blunt dissecting the muscle and opening another entry into the thoracic cavity. He made sure the way was clear then introduced a large catheter, known as a chest tube. Aiming at the point of the right shoulder he pushed about 15 centemeters of tube into Rob. He connected a small sealed drainage unit to the catheter, sutured the tube in place and watched as fresh and clotted blood bubbled through the drain. Definitive treatment in the field, Chris mused to himself. I aughta be a Two-One-B. He sat back on his haunches and watched Rob’s colour improve.
"There ya go mate. Evac and some O2 and you’ll be as good as gold!" He tidied up his equipment, checked Rob’s dressings then listened to his chest. Not a bad job, he thought amazed that he was getting breath sounds below the wound. Incredible, the recuperative power of the human body with the right help. Chris seemed to have a sort of natural – some had said unnatrual – ability to diagnose and treat the wounded, and that was part of the reason so many were willing to follow him into battle. They knew if they caught a bolt they had a almost-guaranteed survival chance if Chris got to them, as he invariably did. Luckily odds like this did not make them sloppy and his section’s 100% mission completion rate with only a single fatality since he joined made them the best in the underground. He took pride in his section, cared about his people and they, in turn, trained hard to fight easy. He also took it as a personal failing when one of his people was injured. That was the other reason for his willingness to take on any solo missions that came along. Beholden to no one, with no care other than mission completion, he took outlandish risks but always came up with the result required. The soft hum of repulsors broke him from his reverie and in no time he was giving a hand-over to the evac team. He felt Jess at his side as he watched the nondescript load speeder pull away. She gave him a light elbow in the ribs and a wink when he looked at her.
"C’mon boss. Rob’s fine, let’s get to the RV."
She leaned across the table and placed her hand on Chris’.
"You’re still totally wound up. Rob’s going to be fine, and it wasn’t your fault. The mission was a success. Relax a bit for a while." Chris looked up into her face: her expressive eyes with their slight almond shape, smooth lightly freckled skin and her full lips framed by short cropped auburn hair. She was beautiful, and he felt more for her than he let anyone know -- the way his body tingled at her slightest touch -- and it scared him.
Jess, on the other hand, was frustrated. She knew how she affected him but was thwarted by his professional shell, his ability to shut off his feelings. She was not the first to try and get close to Chris, but she was adamant she was going to be the last because she had no intention of being the heroine in a story of unrequited love, and love him she did.
"How?" Chris asked, turning his hands palm up in a pleading gesture. Jess smiled.
"Sit back with your hands in your lap… that’s it. Now, close your eyes and try to empty your mind, then start at your toes and think them relaxed. Consciously relax each toe, then move through your feet, up through your ankles, relaxing each part as you go…"
His eyes snapped open and he became fully alert as the second ‘Blamp’ of lock tone faded into the third. He instinctively checked his displays and looked out, only to see the familiar passing of hyperspace. He heard a brief trill behind him and the words Good morning sleepy head Scrolled across his screen. He let out an explosive sigh of relief. "Ah, good one Skip! Ya scared the daylights outta me!" He put his helmet back on and yawned briefly, thinking the effort of waking had buggered him completely.
"OK, Skip, you have the conn. Take us through baby." He sat back and relaxed as the astromech droid made the revision, a brief turn in realspace and shot them off again. With another three changes coming up in the space of the same number of hours, Jalb filled his time reviewing the information he’d received, briefly kicking himself for leaving the crystal, and formulating plans for his return to Macquarie.
About the time Chris was making his course change his Rogue buddies were meeting in the ready room for morning parade and tasking by Stryker. They settled into their seats as Stryker took the podium. Quickly glancing over the pilots he noticed the empty seat. He made a double take, now used to having a full strength squadron, and then pinned Rogues 7 & 8 with a look.
"All right, where is he?" he asked, indicating the vacant seat next to Hellcat with his eyes.
"I dunno… erm, sir."
"His ride’s gone too, sir. We thought you had given him a ‘special’ assignment," Krayt ventured.
"Ah, Vince?" Vidster spoke up, "Krayt and I bumped into the QM. He mentioned Jalb had signed out his personal weapon late last night. We put two and two together and concluded black," he said with a shrug. Black didn’t begin to describe the look on Stryker’s face as he activated a comm link on the panel before him.
"This is Colonel Rambo. What time did Lieutenant Reynolds leave?" There was a brief pause.
"Reynolds? He hasn’t." Stryker’s grim look darkened and he strode out to the hanger, followed by the rest of Rogue, equal parts puzzled bemusement and worry in their visage.
"Deck Officer! DECK OFFICER!" A young fleet major hurried over.
"Have you seen Lieutenant Reynolds?" A negative response. "What about his X-wing, then?" The major followed the line of Renegade Wing CO’s indicating hand and seemed startled by the empty bay. He quickly consulted his datapad.
"Sir, Rogue Nine’s R2 unit brought the craft on-line for maintenance at oh-dark-thirty, then… well, nothing. It’s not logged off or out, it should be here." Stryker waved the perplexed officer away and turned to his men.
"Vidster, Animal. Sensor logs. You know the time frame, see what you can find. Krayt, Hellcat, Jalb’s cabin. E-mail, corro, anything." Hellcat opened his mouth. "Don’t even think about saying it, Mr. Kinney. I know you can read anything you want with that little slice you designed two days ago." Josh’s jaw dropped and Stryker gave him a malicious grin. "Yes, command has a few tricks of its own. This way you get to test it legally, now go! The rest of you, ready room. Let’s see if we can salvage some training out of this."
Chris did a final mental run down of his formulations. Simple, straightforward and heavily reliant on his intuition being correct. In other words he was going straight up the gut with throttles full and hoping his luck held out. Against an untried enemy with pilots lacking in real combat experience, he hoped he could pull it off. He knew he was facing two Imperial Star Destroyers, a Victory Star Destroyer and a few corvettes, but where they were from and the crew composition was unknown. He was hoping the Empire had sent a ‘fresh’ occupation force, full of newly promoted junior officers and recently graduated pilots. A group ready for a ‘ritual blooding’ on an easily pacified planet. Well, they were going to get more than they bargained for. Macquarie wasn’t going down without a fight, at least not while Jalb_k still drew breath. He checked off his short list and changed his IFF signal over to a freelance designator. He was AWOL and he knew it so he wasn’t about to advertize his real identity. He settled down and waited for the last change. He dozed…
She stood in front of him with her hands on her arrogantly tilted hips, eyes flashing and lips pouting.
"I’m transferring, Chris. We both know how we feel about each other, and while I’m part of your section I can’t get so much as a date. So I’ve talked to the head shed and I’m moving to the Operations cell, which means I’m out of the direct line of fire and my safety is no longer your concern, so…" She stepped up, grabbed the front of his shirt and dragged his face down level with hers. "We are going out, tonight, to dinner. You will pick me up at eight. You will dress nicely and you will bring flowers!" Chris opened his mouth and she put her fingertips to his lips. "And, you will not argue." Her voice dropped to a purr. "And I may not argue later." She looked him in the eye and raised a challenging eyebrow along with an enigmatic smile. Seeing no response she turned and strolled away, throwing ‘See you at eight!’ over her shoulder as she left the room.
Rob couldn’t help himself and broke down laughing at the expression on his mate’s face. "You always said she was a go getter, and it looks like she got what she wanted." Chris just nodded, dumbstruck and, for once, at a loss for words.
The evening went well, very well, and it was the start of a wonderful relationship. Jessica was just what Chris needed, a focus, something to live for and her intuitive but logical way of thinking complemented, sometimes tempered Chris’ brash, lateral concepts. She helped a great deal with the planning for the strikes, which would eventually overthrow the Imperial garrisons and puppet leadership of their planet. With meticulous research and attention to detail they had devised a twelve-month program of raids, assassinations and bombings which would culminate in a coordinated strike, utilising every asset the underground had at their disposal. Three days before Chris was to present his proposal to the resistance movement’s leadership Jess gave him one from left field.
"Chris, how do you feel about children?"
He looked up from the maps he was annotating. "Kids? Great! But not right now." Jess seemed to deflate. "Don’t get me wrong, I want kids and I want you to be their mother, but to bring them into the world at the moment… there’s to much uncertainty. It may be two or three years before we win this war, even if they accept this," he said gesturing to the tabletop. "I want to know they’ll have a future, in peace and free to make their own decisions." Jess looked unhappy but she ventured a brave smile.
"I understand Chris, it’s only fair… you going to take a break and join me for dinner?" she asked, changing the subject. Chris didn’t see the way Jess looked at him, her eyes brimming with tears, as he left for the fresher unit to clean up. She’d known the answer before she asked, but she had hoped it might be different. Her sense of profound loss deepened as she realised she had to give up the one she believed in, in order to do what she believed was right.
The briefing went late, but was well received. The movers and shakers had seen far more merit and positive aspects than negative and with Chris’ convincing oratory style urging them a unanimous decision to go with it was made. Six months for final planning, six more for build up and lead in training, then the ambitious 12-month cycle would begin. In two years Macquarie would be free. Chris was jubilant, and in the mood for celebration. Rob met up with him in the street outside the meeting’s safe house location. He could tell by the look on Chris’ face how it went, but he asked anyway.
"Went well, did it?" He asked dryly as he fell into step beside his section commander.
"Well? It was a bloody ripper, mate. I’m now a Lieutenant and they’ve charged me with raising a spec ops platoon. So, Platoon Sergeant, what say we go get Jess and have a drink or three?"
Rob looked across as they walked, a sad smile forming. "How about we go straight to the pub, mate? I’ve a bit of bad news."
They were ensconced at the bar, glasses dripping heavily with condensation in front of them, when Chris finally spoke.
"Well!" he exclaimed. "Why are you being so cagey? What’s the prob?"
"It’s Jess, mate. She’s gone."
"Gone? Gone where? The Imps? We have to get her!" He was suddenly surging to his feet and Rob lay a restraining hand on his forearm.
"I wish it were as easy as a snatch and grab." He then went into the fabricated, but plausible, story he and Jess had concocted. "It’s her father, he’s taken her off planet." Chris slumped back to his barstool. "You know how angry he was about her deferring her studies, well, it was nothing compared to his reaction to her telling him she was staying with the underground and was settling down with you."
Karl Stewart, Jessica’s father, was CEO of a business concern with mining interests both on and off planet. Although unsympathetic to the Imperial rulers, he viewed them as a necessary evil when it came to distribution and selling of the precious ores his company mined. He viewed the rising resistance movement with reserved admiration, fully understanding what they hoped to achieve, but doubting their ability. He even made insubstantial anonymous cash donations from time to time but otherwise remained staunchly neutral when discussing it with parties of either side. He had been against his daughter joining the movement, but had relented in favour of letting her find her own way. He thought she would soon get over her idealism when she learned the reality of war, but it appeared Jessica had a steel in her backbone that had remained hidden for much of her youth.
He had also met her section commander once, and had been impressed by his charm and obvious intelligence, but had also glimpsed the warrior beneath his urbane appearance. A two-man Stormtrooper patrol had entered the establishment they were dining at and the transformation he had witnessed was remarkable. Someone else replaced the good-humoured young gentleman. His features smoothed and his eyes died, becoming flat and hard, devoid of all emotion. He intoned he was getting more drinks and was up and moving to the bar with an economy of effort and fluid grace, much like a stalking panther, keeping his target in sight and himself out of their’s as he crossed the floor. This brief view had left him shaken, but reassured that his little girl was in, if not entirely safe hands, ones more capable of protecting her than his, given the situation. He had secretly approved when Jessica had let him know of the change in her and Chris’ relationship, and how it had transpired, but had remained non-committal, giving Jess no clear indication of his feelings. She had taken this as a censure of sorts and told Chris the same but they didn’t let that stop their happiness with one another. It had also given Jess a creditable excuse for fading from Chris’ life for entirely different reasons. Had he known the truth Macquarie’s future may well have been different.
"Holy unknown offspring, Kraytman! It’s Jalb_k…junior!" Hellcat’s expression met and mirrored Krayt’s look of stunned disbelief.
"All this time we’ve been his family, our surrogate ‘big brother’, and he finds he’s left his real family at home." Krayt shook his head in wonder. "No wonder he left here like a bantha with a bug in its butt! We’ve got to get this crystal to Stryker, like, five minutes ago!" The pair left the cabin at a dead run.
"So you can see it when you slow the log right down," Vidster was explaining. "It was a dangerous move, inspired to say the least, but dangerous all the same. The big question is why?" he concluded as Josh and Matt erupted into the room.
"I think we have the answer to that!" Hellcat exclaimed. "Get a load of this!" Krayt dropped the crystal into the holoprojector and hit the power. The form of Jessica Stewart shimmered into being. Animal let go a slow whistle of appreciation.
"Chris," she started simply, "I’ve been meaning to contact you since I heard you had settled in with Renegade and become a Corsair." There were a few raised eyebrows and knowing smiles. "But I’ve been scared of your reaction. Now my hand has been forced, we need your help, I don’t know who else to turn to." She took a deep breath and worry creased her brow. "The Imperials are back, and they mean to take Macquarie. They have a battle group in orbit." She referred to something out of sight. "Two Impstars, a VSD and several corvettes. They’re landing ground troops as I speak. We have been given 24 hours to surrender, after which time they will commence bombardment from space. We could hold our own down here, but those starships will decimate our ground defences. We need to dispatch them, but what remains of our Navy is inexperienced and ill equipped. We petitioned your High Command but the process is taking too long. The minutes are counting down and we are desperate. We need an experienced leader."
Her eyes took on a pleading, searching quality. "I know this is a lot to ask but there is more at stake than you realise." She took a quavering breath and seemed torn between courses, then looked up with shining eyes. "I want you to see someone very dear to me." The holo changed to that of the running, smiling boy with Jess speaking voice over. "This is Kyle Logan, he’s nearly nine years old. You once said you wanted to have your children grow up in peace. He has, but that is looking like it’s changing." The holo returned to Jess. "Kyle is your son, Chris, and he has grown up in peace due, in no small part, to you. He knows who his father is, what he did for his planet, and what he is now doing for other kids who can’t live as free as he does. His grandfather is probably your biggest fan, regaling Kyle with all sorts of stories of your ‘heroism’…" She managed a sad smile. "His requests to meet his father are becoming more frequent…" She trailed off. "You helped to bring peace once, could you do it again? If not for us, then for him?" She stood silently, a single crystal bright tear slipping down her smooth cheek. "I still love you Chris, I always have, I always will. Please help us." She brought her fingertips to her lips then held them out towards the viewers. The holo wavered, then broke down to static and faded. Stunned silence followed, into which Stryker started pacing.
"Damn his impetuousness! Why didn’t he come to me first?" He stopped in front of the holoprojector, reached for the crystal, looked at it for a moment, deep in thought, then checked his chrono. "Animal! Best guess, single jump, time to Macquarie?" Chris Stephen closed his eyes and answered quickly.
"Eleven hours." The rest of the Rogues surreptitiously glanced at their chronos, and Stryker didn’t miss it.
"OK. We can all do the math. That would be an hour after the deadline." He scanned the faces around him. "Anyone think Reynolds can’t last an hour, or that it’s a lost, or unworthy cause?"
"He’s a Rogue," Wolfman stated simply.
"We look after our own," added Mustang
"He’s our brother!" Krayt and Hellcat said in unison. They looked at each other and grinned. This was met by murmured assent. Stryker looked at Vidster, who shrugged.
"Well, I have my reservations, but we can’t leave him swinging in the breeze."
"All right! Rogues, these are orders! Battle prep complete and online in 15. I want noses hot by the time I get back from the Admiral. Time to spread the rebellion, let’s go!" The room echoed to the sound of running feet.
"It’s all right Skip, I got it," Jalb_k said as the proximity alarm warbled and he disengaged the hyperdrive. The sub-light engines cut in smoothly as he rapidly assessed his sensor readings. "Skip, designate all Macquarian forces friendly." Purple dots changed to green and he scrolled through the list. Four squadrons, two each of Y-wings and Z-95’s. The Imperials were still a good fifty klicks out and hadn’t launched fighters yet, but he could see the swarms being out all too soon. He checked the capital ship placement, then keyed his comm.
"Macquarian forces, this is Anzac 1, currently a freelance starfighter who’s been missing home. Looks like your out to pick a fight, mind if I join you?"
"Unknown callsign, this is Captain Robert Juhas, Bondi Lead, say again callsign!" Rob couldn’t believe his ears. Few but those in the group, and some higher up, knew what Anzac was, or that it even existed. If this was who he thought it was… Rob was ready to take a gamble.
"I say again, this is Anzac 1, acknowledge?"
"Acknowledged Anzac. Confirm familiarity with our tactics?"
"Ha! Confirm? I wrote the book Rob!"
That clinched it for Captain Juhas. "Manly, Ripcurl and Billabong, this is Bondi Lead. Designate Anzac 1 friendly and assign secure command frequency. Anzac, you have the lead!"
"Thanks Rob, I won’t let you down. OK people, let’s look like we mean it. Effect squadron separation and tighten up those flight groups. Bondi, Ripcurl, drop back into echelon rear heavy, I want two separate assault groups. What are your loadouts?"
"All pro torps."
"Copy. Billabong, Bondi, I want you to lead in your heavies by one klick. You will notice the corvettes moving to block our attack vectors on the Star Destroyers. Take whatever TIEs you can as you go through the fighter screen. They will expect you to chase them down. Ignore them. Split by elements and give the ‘vettes eight torpedoes each, then peel and dogfight, cover your Y-wings. Manly and Ripcurl, once past the initial TIE wave set E/L/S to 0/0 until your past the corvette debris field, then I want you to dumb-fire your full loads at your assigned capital ship. You will then assist with fighter suppression. Bondi Lead, watch, learn and duplicate my moves on your ISD. We’ll get to the VSD when we cross that line. Questions?" Nothing. "OK then, buckle up boys, this is going to be a heck of a stink! Lock S-foils in attack formation!"
"Er, say again Anzac?"
"Heh. Disregard my last, force of habit I guess."
The chatter died down as they drew closer to the Imperial battle group and the import of what they were about to do filled their minds. They broke fifteen klicks to the ISD’s, about ten to the ‘vettes when red blips started multiplying. Wave after wave of eyeballs and squints issued from the gaping bays of the two big, wedge shaped craft. The forces met at eight klicks.
"Anzac, this is Billabong Lead, we are in contact!"
"Copy Billabong. Stick to your objectives."
Vermilion and scarlet lances of light spread across the heavens, with several scarlet bolts terminating with short lived, fiery blossoms. The Z-95s of Billabong Squadron continued on-line, six of them launching warheads at the three closest corvettes while the TIEs were still in the throes of unneeded evasive manoeuvres. As the Y-wings passed and spooled up to top speed the Imps realized they were clear and set to close with the bombers, only to lose ground. Then the fighters of Billabong were amongst them, ruining any chance of effective pursuit. Manly Squadron was past the remains of the ‘vettes in quick time and Jalb gave the order to launch. In moments 144 warheads were streaking towards the first ISD and giving odds of 50% hitting, and Jalb was feeling pretty good. The Y-Wings peeled off the attack line, recycled their power settings and joined the fray. Jalb_k was a good klick high and two in front when the Y-wings launched. He set E/L/S to 50/25 and streaked towards the ISD from above and in front.
Although the ISD’s gunners were having success, volley after volley of torpedoes still impacted the starships shields. As they continued to drop Jalb rolled in at the port shield generator firing continual single shot, weakening the shield over it. His lasers depleted he fired a single torp, followed by a duo. The first made a small hole momentarily appear in the weakened shield, the second two raced through the breach and the generator flared and expanded. He evaded vertically, shunting shield power to guns, up to about a klick out, then turned and made a similar run on the remaining generator, with spectacular results. The second explosion not only crippled the ISD’s ability to shield itself, it also severely damaged the bridge superstructure, in effect, breaking its spine. The bridge sagged forward, damage went to over 50% and the final volleys of torpedoes tolled its death knell. The combined forces had destroyed the capship in little over a minute. Jalb_k punched all available power to sub-light to clear the blast radius. The explosion of vented atmosphere briefly overtook him, then he shot out into the clear like a phoenix rising.
"Woooooo-ha! What a rush! Did’ya get that Bondi Lead?"
"Copy Anzac. Lovin’ your action! Let’s see if I can get the same result!"
Bondi and Ripcurl Squadrons followed the same plan of attack, with the same results. Rob carried off his version of Jalb’s moves, and although they lacked polish, the end was the same. The second ISD crumpled in on itself after the onslaught of warheads continued into its unshielded hull. The VSD sat by; menacing any fighter that came within range, but other than launch it’s complement of fighters it moved inexorably on towards it’s firing position. The allied Macquarian forces became bogged down in the mixed melee, slowly whittling the opposing forces down. But sheer weights of numbers were keeping them from attacking the lone VSD.
The battle raged on and Jalb heard snippets of comm chatter.
"Man, I love the power of a Z-95!"
"Heh, Imperial training seems a bit lax."
"Hey! You trying to steal my kills?" The lighthearted banter continued, even though both sides were suffering losses. The Macquarians were slowly taking the advantage as the Imperial numbers dwindled steadily. Jalb ordered the remaining fighters of Bondi and Billabong to break by elements and unload their remaining warheads at the VSD. The Imperial fighters were kept too busy to respond to calls from their flight control to stop the pairs darting away, firing and rejoining the fray. The VSD’s shields failed as it came into firing range. The young captain aboard took little persuasion from his XO to turn about and run for safety, and in this was their undoing. As they turned tail a volley of torpedoes took out the main sub-light engines, sending secondary detonations deep into the ship. Escape pods suddenly burst from points on the stricken craft and tracked away from the battle area. The Macquarians were elated, but their jubilation was short lived as two more of their compatriots’ fell to Imperial fighters. Jalb’s veins turned to ice.
"Don’t give an inch, fellahs. They’ve called for reinforcements, that’s why they’re still fighting. Knock ‘em out, quick!" The minutes ticked by and sweat soon began to pool at the base of Jalb’s spine. He knew the guys out there must be just about past it if he was feeling the strain, then his nightmares came true. The sleek, deadly forms of two modified frigates dropped into real space, flanking another VSD. The current melee was near finished, with the remaining Imps on the run to regroup with the new arrivals and Jalb had to rein in his remaining defenders. Of the assault groups he started with, he had 30 craft left, having lost a full half of the Y-wings and a half dozen Z-95’s. Pilot beacons flashed reassuringly, he just hoped there would be someone friendly to pick them up when this was over.
"Gentlemen, it has been an honour, however, I leave this call to you. We have no warheads, our ships are battered, we are facing a numerically superior enemy, again, and the fate of the planet rests in our mortal hands. My morale is high, how about you?" A chorus of affirmatives came through his comm. "Let’s take the advantage then. Ripcurl, Manly, strafe the VSD! The rest of us, let’s keep ‘em alive!" The rag-tag force made a slow loop back towards the enemy when Jalb heard an excited tittering from behind him. He glanced down at his readout and saw 11 new X-wings at 1 KM scroll across the screen. His hopes surged as he identified his squadron moving into formation.
"Anzac 1, this Is Rogue Lead. Heard there was a party going on, mind if we crash?"
"Rogue Leader, you are more than welcome. By the Force, it’s good to see you guys!"
"Copy Anzac. This is now a sanctioned operation. You may switch your IFF back to the business setting and get into formation. We’re loaded for bantha and we’re not leaving till we get some. By elements, gentlemen, and go Rogue!!"
The appearance of the infamous Rogue Squadron sent the Imperials into frenzy, with many colliding with each other in their haste to make viable attack formations. The Alliance X-wings with heavy rockets made short work of the Imperial rear guard action, and left many TIE fighters homeless. A small squad of Macquarians was left to herd the remaining functioning Imp fighters to a secure Military base while the rest of them, with Rogue Squadron, set about completely destroying the Imperial troops on the ground. Long strafing runs left the ground littered with equipment, smoking wreckage and limp bodies. The invading Army was thoroughly routed and the Macquarian ground troops swept through and mopped up what was left in the space of a few short days. A clear message was sent to the Imperial establishment. Macquarie was a free world with powerful friends and with the loss of the Imperial’s entire sector command allocation of capital ships, it was likely to stay that way for a long time to come.
"Rogue Nine, this is Rogue Leader. I look forward to your report of the action, preceding our arrival, once you return to the Liberty. However, before you return you are the Alliance’s voice in Macquarie. I am downloading a message from High Command to your R2 unit, along with some personal information for you."
"You’re lucky, Reynolds. Instead of disciplinary action you’re going to end up a hero, until we knock you back down to size." Jalb_k smirked inside his crew compartment. "The Admiral had just received a secure transmission giving us warning for this operation. I was able to pass your disappearance off as an advanced recon, using my discretion as Wing CO and acting on ‘special’ sources" the humour in Colonel Rambo’s voice evident as he said this. "So, fortunately for you, I come out smelling like roses, too."
"Understood, Lead. I appreciate the top cover."
"Yeah, just don’t let it happen too often. The Liberty should be at our RV about now; you have three days leave once your official duties are finished. I expect you and your report at my desk twelve hours after you return. Until then…get to know your family, Chris."
"Wilco, sir! Request permission to leave formation?"
"Granted Nine, you are clear to roll."
"Roger, Nine out!" With that Jalb pulled up and dumped all power to propulsion. He rocketed forward and, once clear of the squadron, pushed his left foot down on the etheric rudder, starting a flat yaw to the left. At the same time he pushed forward and right on his control yoke causing his X-Wing to go through a spectacular tumbling barrel roll. He levelled out and dove for the surface of the planet with his wing mates making jocular remarks about showing off and saving his moves for the ladies.
Or, more appropriately, one lady.
Jalb made a low banking fly past over the remains of the force he had taken into battle. They were formed up on the open tarmac of the main spaceport in orderly ranks with the three remaining squadron leaders parked in front. He noticed the huddle of pilots with a huge crowd forming around them look up as he passed over.
"Rogue Nine, this is Port Control. You are clear for short finals onto pad Victor-1. Ground-crew is there to signal you in."
"Roger Port, I have them visual. Thanks for the welcome." He responded as he identified the ground-crewman waving him down to a point central to and in front of the other starfighters.
"No, thank you for stopping by Lieutenant Reynolds. Port out."
Jalb eased in on repulsors and made a soft, 3-point landing right on top of the markers. He popped his canopy and there was a ladder on his right side instantly. The X-wing was gently humming through power down and Jalb told his astromech to run through the post-flights. He sat for a moment longer, removed his helmet and gloves and took a deep breath. He looked up to see the welcoming committee forming up to the front of his X-wing and took note of the amount of brass that was present. He pulled out a battered Renegade Wing cap and sat it on his head with the peak at a jaunty angle. When he was happy with his hat he vaulted out of the crew compartment and climbed down the side of his craft. The crowd hushed as he marched over to the important looking group in front of them. He came to a halt and snapped off a salute with military precision.
"Sir, First Lieutenant Chris Reynolds, Rogue Nine, Renegade Wing off the CRS Liberty, Alliance Starfighter and Naval Command, requesting permission to come ashore, sir!" The gentleman to whom he spoke beamed as he accepted the salute.
"You are most welcome, Lieutenant Reynolds. On behalf of the people of Macquarie and myself, I offer you and your fellow pilots our sincere thanks. We are in your debt and at your disposal." Chief Minister Karl Stewart stepped forward and embraced Chris in an emotional bear hug; much to the latter’s surprise. "Welcome home… Son." The gathered crowd erupted and people surged forward, all wanting to congratulate and thank Chris. He was caught up in a whirl, so many familiar faces, old friends and squad mates, all eager to get his attention. Then Rob was in front of him. Gripping his right hand firmly he pulled his old mate into a rough embrace, his eyes starting to glisten. He turned…
…and saw her. She was standing two or three deep, directly behind Rob. He gently pushed Rob aside with an apologetic look, which earned one of understanding. He brushed past the people between him and swept her into his arms, tears openly rolling down his cheeks. He buried his face into her hair, gripping her tightly about the waist and the back of her slender neck.
"I never thought… I’m so glad… I’ve missed you so much," he stuttered as he held her at arm’s length then pulled her back into a fierce hug. Jessica was giddy with joy and relief, just happy to be holding and held by him. The crowd stayed back a couple of feet out of deference to the reunited couple, with friends of both of them cheering and wolf whistling loudly. They broke apart and stood facing, right hands in left, drinking in the sight of each other, smiling and crying by turns as they expressed their feelings. Rob caught Jess’ eye as he moved back towards the small clearing around the couple. She looked at Chris, a radiant smile in place.
"There’s someone that really wants to meet you," she said as she looked to her right. Chris followed her gaze, which settled on a handsome, sombre young face that was trying desperately not to break into a grin. Chris turned towards the boy he had seen in the holo and took a knee to come down to his level. It put the child head and shoulders above him. He’s so tall! Chris marvelled to himself. The lad stepped forward and offered his right hand.
"I’m Kyle," he said as the grin he was trying to contain broke free, "and I am so very happy and honoured to finally meet you. Sir!" The nearly nine year old finished in a rush as he furiously pumped his father’s hand up and down. Chris looked up in amazement at Jess, who was beaming with pride, and returned his gaze to Kyle.
"No, Kyle. It is I who am honoured to have a fine young man as you for a son. Now come here and give your old man a hug!" They suited action to words and Chris stood, lifting his son’s feet of the ground as he did so. After a moment he put Kyle up on his shoulders and searched the faces around him for the Chief Minister. He found the person he was looking for shortly and stepped towards him.
"If the formalities could be held off a while, sir? I have a family with nearly a decade of catching up to do. My R2 can give you most of what you need, so, if I may?"
And without waiting for an answer he turned with Jess on his arm, Kyle on his shoulders and strode off into the start of a new life.