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Defender

JAIME SCHEFFLER (2nd LT Kell "Dragon" Arcfire)

Kell 'DX-20-5' Arcfire, and Darek 'DX-21-5' Mortan, his wingman, stumbled upon a heavily damaged Nebulon-B frigate flying Rebellion colors—the Elegy—during a seek and destroy mission. The frigate's shields were down, its weapon systems inoperative, and it was leaking atmosphere from multiple hull breaches.

**Incoming transmission**

Kell raised an eyebrow. He glanced at his instruments and, after a few moments, accepted the transmission.

"Imperial pilots, this is Captain Katrina Cross of the medical frigate Elegy." She made a brief pause, static making her sound voice raspier than it truly was. "We are a Rebellion ship, but our passengers, 600 civilians and refugees—many of them wounded—aren't. Please, escort us to a neutral safe harbor to unload our precious cargo unharmed, and both my crew and I will surrender to the Empire's judgment."

"You hearing this drivel, DX-20-5? The nerve of these Rebel scum," scoffed DX-21-5. "Let's turn them into space dust and call it a day."

Kell took a long, hard look at the Elegy. At first glance, there were no indicators of an ambush. As a veteran pilot of unshielded spherical death-traps with solar panels for wings, Kell could spot ambushes from a thousand klicks away—his survival depended on it. Besides, the frigate was in its deathbed. All it could possibly throw at him was bad language, if that. It wouldn't take more than a couple warheads, and a few well-placed laser shots, to void it along with its 600 presumed non-rebels.

"DX-20-5, how copy?"

Katrina Cross, why does that name sound familiar? Kell wondered. Could she be lying? Weaving a little sob story to save her skin? Kell shook his head. Then again, this is the first time I've ever heard a Rebel Captain ask for Imperial mercy. He kept his gaze fixed on the frigate. Even if she was lying, there's no point in shooting down that flying disaster. There's no honor to be had from this kill, no thrill, no challenge. It would be just as pointless as . . .

"Sith's blood wing leader, cut me loose already!" Said DX-21-5 impatiently.

. . . bullying a little kid.

"Fine, this one's all mine then," said DX-21-5. "Initiating attack vector 66."

Kell snapped back to reality. He deftly put his wingman's TIE defender squarely in his sights and fired a single laser blast—a warning shot—that dissipated harmlessly on his target's rear deflector. "Stand down, and form on my wing."

"TRAITOR!" Snarled DX-21-5. "I didn't want to believe it at first, but both Imperial Intelligence and the Emperor's own envoy warned me of your treachery. You are finished!" DX-21-5 punched his throttle, drifting 180 degrees to bring his ship's guns to bear against Kell.

Kell broke left into a half barrel-roll, and then hit the boost into a 90-degree dive. Myriad laser bolts whizzed past the spot his TIE defender had been in, and flew harmlessly into the void.

"Turns out a member of the highest echelon of the Secret Order of the Emperor is nothing more than Rebel-loving scum, and a coward to boot!" DX-21-5 laughed as he set off in pursuit. "Run away, little womp rat, you can't avoid me forever!"

Kell began to dodge and weave as laser bolts flew past his ship. Sporadic, dull impacts told him his rear deflector was taking damage, eventually dropping to half strength. Kell twisted the control rods sharply, sending his TIE defender into a violent corkscrew that got him mostly out of harm's way, at least momentarily.

"How did you make it this far, I wonder? Luck?" DX-21-5 chuckled. "You've got all these accolades, but you're not even that good. I'm better, and I'm sure the Emperor will be pleased to know you died by my hand."

"You talk too much," Kell said, head throbbing. The inertial compensators were not enough to stave off the ill-effects of a corkscrew dive at full boost. "Always have."

"Oh, don't worry." Grinned DX-21-5. "Soon you won't hear my voice ever again."

A barrage of laser fire punched through Kell's rear deflector, and tore into the light titanium alloy that made up his ship's hull. Sparks and smoke filled the cockpit. He glanced at the damage report: warhead system destroyed, hyperdrive damaged, deflector system damaged, targeting computer destroyed, radar malfunctioning.

Kark me . . . Kell thought as he redirected all power to lasers and hit the boost.

"Run little womp rat, RUN!" Cackled DX-21-5. His delight, however, quickly turned to surprise, as Kell drifted into a 180 degree turn and came back guns blazing. Shot after shot pounded into DX-21-5's front deflector. DX-21-5 managed to react quickly enough to focus all deflector power to the front, but the charged laser bolts punched through the defensive energy screen and bit into the hull of the lightly armored fighter. Out of the corner of his eye, DX-21-5 saw Kell's ship passing on his starboard side, so he banked left and fired a flare. The small warhead, lacking any incoming missiles to home in to, locked onto Kell's TIE defender and struck it with a loud *THUD*.

Kell's world spun out of control. Were it not for the inertial compensators and the crash webbing that held him strapped down to the ship's shock couch, he would've pinballed all over the cockpit. Kell pulled on the control rods and depressed the control yokes frantically, trying to regain control of the ship. The TIE defender eventually stabilized, and Kell redirected all power to engines as he scanned for signs of his opponent. Nothing. His surroundings were silent. The radar faded in and out of existence, displaying static from time to time, and the targeting computer was both cracked and spitting sparks.

I suppose this is the end of the road, huh? Kell tapped the radar, hoping for an image, a hint of his opponent's location. It's dark. He smiled. The hull of his TIE defender had been breached, but the emergency sealant had come through, preventing explosive decompression. Thankfully, his flight suit was intact, and had an ample supply of oxygen. I'm ready for the end, I just . . . I just wish my death didn't also mean the deaths of those 600 souls. DX-21-5 must be getting ready to take the shot. Will I feel pain, I wonder? Will it be an instant death? Agonizing, perhaps? Kell sighed and closed his eyes, reminiscing of the day he stood up to those bullies in Coruscant to save James Cross from a beatdown. I suppose you can't win them all, huh James?

"Any last words, DX-20-5?"

Kell opened his eyes and saw a blurry red blip on the malfunctioning radar. DX-21-5 was right on his six.

"Dragon."

"What?"

Kell cut the throttle and pulled on the control rods, hard. DX-21-5's TIE defender flew past under his ship, and Kell did a half barrel-roll which left him inverted behind his target. He flicked a switch to redirect all power into lasers and engaged the defender's APS system.

"Name's Dragon!" Kell pulled the trigger and held it tight. A hail of supercharged laser fire punched through his target's weakened rear deflectors and melted holes in its hull. DX-21-5 screamed in pain, but Kell held his white-knuckle grip on the trigger until his wingman's TIE defender erupted into a fireball and disintegrated.

"You always did talk too much . . ." Kell slumped on the shock couch, exhausted. His ship was in pretty bad shape but, fortunately, the onboard repair system had managed to patch up the hyperdrive. He pressed a button on the control console and hailed the Elegy. "The threat has been neutralized, get out of here as fast as you can. I'm sure the Empire will come looking soon."

"Thank you," Katrina said. "Thank you so much, I cannot . . ." She pushed back the flow of emotions and composed herself. "What's your name, pilot?"

"Dragon."

Dragon . . . . You know, when I was a little girl, my father told me a story—multiple times, in fact—about someone he called Dragon, a bold protector, a defender." Katrina's voice softened, she was smiling on the other side of the comm. "Is it you?"

Kell felt he knew the answer, but asked anyway. "Is James Cross your father, I wonder?"

"Was. He died two years ago."

Kell frowned. "I'm sorry to hear that."

"He stood up to injustice, because of you, because of what you did." Katrina choked up a bit. "The Rebellion could use your help. Come back with us to the Flagship Independence, the heart of the Rebel fleet."

"I . . . I can't. Besides, who's to say they won't shoot first and ask questions while shooting?"

"Don't be silly." Katrina shook her head. "You're a hero. If anything, they'll pin a medal on you for saving all these people!"

Kell finished disabling the tracking devices in his ship and plotted a course for Arris, a remote jungle planet in the outer rim. "You don't know where I've been, or what I've done. I'll only bring unwanted attention to the Rebellion. I need to disappear before the Empire decides to do it for me."

"Please, think about it," Katrina said. "We need pilots."

"No promises. Fair winds, Captain Cross."

Katrina sighed. "Fair winds . . . Dragon. May your wings never tire, may your fire be ever burning, and may your claws keep your enemies at bay."

"Thank you." Kell activated his ship's hyperspace drive and leaned back against the shock couch. He closed his eyes and patted the couch's armrest. Wake me when we get there, buddy.

Having lived up to its name, the wounded, but stout, TIE defender slipped into hyperspace, and into the hope of a brighter future.