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Payback By Payload
A Buccaneer Collaboration

Note from the Buccs: To understand why we’re in the state we’re in for the first scene, read: Warm Welcome by Animal in the Lounge!

*************************************

CRS Vigilant Briefing Room
POV: Bulldog

The bright lights of the room were conducting an all-out assault on Bulldog’s eyes. He’d never experienced anything so bright as these lights in his entire career with the Alliance as far as he could remember, which wasn’t very far back considering how foggy his mind was at the moment. It was almost as if the New Republic Intelligence agent running the meeting had turned up the brightness to maximum burn just to punish the Buccaneers for their raucous revelry the night (and morning) before. He groaned as he rubbed his eyes vigorously.

The new arrival to the ship stood at the front of the room with perfect posture, her lithe body standing to its full height. She had a smart-looking face with a tight white ponytail and minimal makeup covering her blue skin to accentuate her high cheekbones. Though Bulldog had limited experience with members of the Pantoran race, he still knew that some of them wore makeup of some sort. Any other circumstance, Bulldog would find her attractive. Right now, though, he just wanted to sleep. She coughed delicately to draw attention to herself. “My name is Captain Freyu Unasawe of New Republic Intelligence.”

The other pilots groaned as well in their own chorus of misery. Wolvinator looked like he might be dead in his seat. Ant had a haggard look about him, his eyes looking extremely sunken in their sockets. Crane had called it a night early and missed the early morning antics, but he still seemed to be dealing with an extreme hangover. Loth-Cat didn’t seem to be awake despite their eyes being open due to their staying up all night with the group without drinking a drop of alcohol. Gnoizic was as hard to read as ever under his Mandalorian helmet, but the slight dip of his head forward showed that he was indeed struggling to stay awake. Animal was putting up a good front, but he had the jitters due to the entire pot of high-caffeine kaf he’d just imbibed moments before the briefing and was now struggling to control his bladder. Rev appeared mysteriously unaffected by last night’s antics, which was very curious to the pilots that were fighting through their misery.

“Well,” the Unasawe started slowly, “seems like you all were a bit rowdy last night, eh? I can’t wait to see what the other guys look like!” She laughed at her own joke, but it died out quickly as she realized none of the others joined in.

Bulldog hated the snarky woman the moment she spoke. Her shrill cackle drilled deep into his skull near his ears and bored deeply into his throbbing brain. The vibrations threatened to overwhelm his control over his normally durasteel stomach, and he knew if she kept it up he’d need to find a bin for a reversal-of-fortune in short order.

The Captain pushed on, a bit more subdued with the lack of laughter at her previous attempt to lighten the mood. “So, as one of your pilots found out during their last scouting sortie to the Skoth system, they had a planetary ion cannon set up. Normally, we’d now be giving a planet of this status a wide berth to avoid unnecessary danger, but we’ve gotten some fortuitous intelligence just yesterday that tells us the KDR V-150 Planet Defender ion cannon on Skoth is being dismantled to be moved. The destination is unknown, so we only have a small window to make a strike.”

The lights dimmed mercifully by the push of a button by Animal at the nod of the NRI agent. The rest of the Buccaneers breathed sighs of relief at the new ambiance. The relief was short-lived, however, as the holographic display burned extra bright next to the agent.

“This is the planet Skoth. There is a thick asteroid belt nearby that is, as far as we know, still laced with Ion Mines. This will be the first obstacle you have to overcome en route to the target. I believe your executive officer had the misfortune of running afoul of one of these surprises last time?”

Bulldog had mentally drifted the moment the lights went out. A sharp nudge from Ant jolted him back to the present. “Oh! Uh, yeah. There’s ion mines you guys.”

Agent Unasawe gave him a disapproving look, but then her eyes widened once she realized that the stupor Bulldog was in was indicative of the rest of the squadron, and very real doubt in the success of the mission crept into her mind. Still, she soldiered on. “Right, that’s step one. Navigating that mess. Next, there may or may not be an Acclamator-Class Assault Ship in the area. We have it on good authority that this is the best they would have to offer in the name of capital ship defense for the planet, which is the reason they are taking the Ion Cannon apart to move it and how they are transporting the components.”

“That’s not so bad,” Ant said absentmindedly.

“What’s the configuration of that ship, Captain?” Animal interjected.

Unasawe scrunched her eyes up in confusion. “I’m not sure I understand the question, Major?”

Animal smiled politely, but the manic over-caffeinated look in his eyes made him look more frenzied than he’d intended. “I was asking if it’s primarily a fighter carrier, troop transport, or assault ship variant.”

“I’m sorry, I do not have that information.”

“Regardless, it’s not much of a threat from a coordinated torpedo attack,” Gnoizic grumbled, showing signs of life beneath his helmet for the first time since the briefing had started.

Captain Unasawe smiled. “Right. It’s a tertiary target though. If the ship is not there or out of the way and not a threat, do not go hunting for it. The goal is that ion cannon. While they may have taken parts of it off-planet already, whatever is left is the primary target. Secondary target is the base itself. We want it leveled with your remaining ordinance after you’ve destroyed the primary target.”

“Proton Bombs?” Loth-Cat asked dubiously.

Agent Unasawe smiled kindly. “I don’t know what your previous experience with NRI has been for all of you, though I know one of you had a bad experience last time with somebody in my branch of the military… But I know that you have the expertise in this arena. Your loadouts are up to you, or at least your Officer Commanding and Executive Officer. Whatever they deem best for this mission as laid out is fine by me.”

Bulldog perked up finally. It was refreshing to hear somebody in NRI deferring to the pilots’ expertise. He instantly felt bad for the disrespectful way he and the rest of his pilots had been acting during the briefing. “You can count on Buccaneer Squadron, Ma’am.”

Unasawe smiled pleasantly. “I never had any doubt,” she said with a sarcastic edge, eliciting a polite laugh from the pilots in the room this time. Her eyes lit up as her joke actually landed, and her smile grew.

Bulldog caught himself staring, but not before she did. He averted his eyes quickly and attempted to look like he was examining the map, but the presentation had ended and he was now clearly staring at dead space. Nausea and embarrassment struck in equal measure, and it finally overcame him. He lurched out of the chair and made a clumsy, stumbling beeline for the nearest trash receptacle as his mouth began the pre-vomit salivation routine he’d become well acquainted with his entire life. A step away from the garbage bin, the first of the rancid, half-digested alcohol surged up through his esophagus and arced through the air. The sickly-sweet smelling fluid landed neatly into the bottom of the bin, and he finished the last step and hunched over it to unload the rest of the contents of his stomach violently. “Like a-HURK! pro-HURK!”

“I’m going to be sick,” Wolvinator coughed out, throwing his hand up to his mouth as he shuffled out of the room.

“Are you guys ok?” Animal asked hurriedly. “I feel ok. I’m just wondering if you guys are ok? You’re ok, right?” he asked, his rapidfire questions directed at different people still in the room drew more looks of confusion. The kaf had finally kicked in for full effect, and his pinhead-sized pupils told those in attendance that he was in hyper-caffeine mode.

“When do we have to leave for this thing?” Rev asked as he covered his nose.

Captain Unasawe grimaced as she too shied away from the noxious smell emanating from Bulldog’s still in use vomit receptacle. “Five standard hours for lift-off is preferable so your strike team arrives at dusk for the base… Also, you will have a support pilot in a U-Wing joining you,” she said as she looked at her datapad to double check. “Ah, yes, Lieutenant Davis will be flying a U-Wing in support. He’s been briefed already and will be in the hangar when you are.”

“We’ll be ready!” Animal declared adamantly. “We’ll definitely be ready for that. Won’t we be ready for that? I have no doubt in my mind that we’ll be ready by then! Let’s go get ready, boys!” He said as he clapped his hands quickly and stormed out of the room. His clapping echoed as he speed-walked down the hallway.

“We’re surprisingly pretty good at our jobs,” Gnoizic said sympathetically to the distraught agent as he rose from his seat. “It’ll get done.”

Captain Unasawe seemed unconvinced despite the brave face she was showing as she gazed at the still violently vomiting Bulldog. “I have no doubt in my mind.”

*************************************

Acclamator Rising Star Bridge
POV: Phel Rastagar

Captain Phel Rastagar stood at the very front of the bridge of his Rothana Heavy Engineering Acclamator-class assault ship, the Rising Star as he slowly took in the vista outside of his ship. To his left was the lush green and white sphere of the planet Skoth. To his right, the asteroid belt that was still seeded with a multitude of ion mines slowly tumbled around, locked into a messy hybrid orbit of the planet as well as the wider asteroid belt of the system. This chaotic orbital band made navigation at sublight very difficult with the erratic paths of the asteroids and frequent jarring collisions that often had a cascade effect.

He shivered. While the planet itself looked inviting enough, it was just as punishing as the asteroid belt, if not more so. He’d landed his ship on the surface one time to expedite the dismantling of the base and planetary ion cannon, but those blasted spider beasts had absconded with and eaten some of his crew during cargo transfer operations. One of the larger ones had even gotten into the cargo hold, and it had been a hell of a task to burn it down without more unacceptable casualties.

The scratch that marred his viewport made him wince. Whilst he and the bridge crew had been intently watching the nightmare battle between his ship’s crew, technicians, and meager platoon of storm troopers garrisoned on his ship, another massive beast had clambered up the massive bridge tower and attempted to bite, slash, and shatter the main viewport to get to the meat within. The emergency takeoff firing of the engines had fried untold numbers of the hulking beasts and set the forest ablaze. Despite the thinning of the air and the speed with which the ship was moving, the spider kept hammering at the glass. Only the timely intervention from his executive officer had saved them when she triggered the vacuum armor plates, shearing off a leg and finally ending the threat.

He mentally cursed as he stepped away from the reminder of the surface’s ‘hospitality’. His ship was already shorthanded. Coming to Skoth with 505 crew and 45 Stormtroopers, they left the surface with 487 crewmen and 30 troopers. The only part of the ship that was not short handed was his fighter complement and their support crew. He currently boasted 80 total TIE fighters split between the three variants set up on the rotating rack that used to hold LAAT gunships during the Clone Wars. Unfortunately, he had more ships than pilots at the moment, as replacements for the lost pilots were slow in arriving given the current state of the Empire.

“Captain?”

“Yes?”

“Sergeant Valish of the base’s stormtrooper garrison has regained consciousness in sick bay. Doc said you told her to let you know when he was recovered enough for a debriefing,” the junior deck officer reported from the door.

“Thank you, Ensign. Let them know I will be down shortly.” Rastagar owed that stormtrooper more than he could calculate at this moment, having watched him wade into the chaos of the hangar battle with nothing but a bright, massive light and battery pack, herding the invading insects back out of the hangar while the ship lifted off quickly. A spider had skewered him high on his torso, but was blasted apart before it could abscond with its meal. He’d been rushed, unconscious, into medbay and remained there ever since.

Rastagar shook the memory from his head and sighed. He’d been happy as a sensor officer on the Conviction. He’d had one job, and one life to look after and be directly responsible for. However, Commodore Barand had seen fit to promote him to one of the many new, smaller capital ships they’d received as they traded out some of their bigger, more maintenance-intensive ships. Running short of experienced captains and executive officers, he was quickly tapped to command this antique.

It was a massive step up the ladder from Junior Lieutenant to Captain, and he’d been grateful, but it came with a huge leap in responsibilities that he was currently feeling very heavy on his heart. Earlier in the day they’d committed their fallen comrades to space in a massive funeral service, and he’d just now finished examining the altered duty rosters and schedules his XO had worked up.

Noting that everything looked in order, he then examined his list of orders and issues that needed to be addressed. Top of the list was to continue shuttling the parts of the planetary ion cannon from the surface to his cargo hold. It was slower going due to the necessity of shuttling from within the base confines, but he wouldn’t dare risk another landing outside of the base’s walls and he couldn’t fit his ship into the base proper. It would likely take another three or four days to be fully deconstructed and then transferred with this method, but it was the safest way to do it.

Second on the list was to pull the rest of the base personnel, equipment, and fighters onto his ship. The base on Skoth was being abandoned now that it served no strategic purpose, and these personnel and war materiel needed a ride to their next port of call.

Last and most important to him directly, he needed to find more troopers and pilots without pulling them from his already dwindling crew. It was great to say on the screen that he boasted 80 TIEs, and soon to be more than that once the fighters from the base made their way to his ship… but it meant nothing if he couldn’t deploy them all in the field with a pilot at the controls.

First, though, he must go talk to the trooper that had saved his ship from disaster. “So much to do, and all the time in the world to do it,” he said aloud to himself as he took one last longing gaze out of the main viewport. Sighing once more, he headed for the turbolift.

*************************************

CRS Vigilant Hangar
POV: Foo

Lieutenant Corell “Foo” Davis Davis popped open the covering of the upper starboard 4J.7 fusial thrust engine to gain access to the power coupling inside. The engine was relatively 'new' by New Republic standards but the power coupling had been giving him trouble seating properly. He picked up his hydrospanner and began to slowly turn the nut holding the coupling in place. This wasn't the first time he’d had to do his own maintenance nor probably the last.

Years of service within the rebellion and the New Republic had proven that staff and parts were in short supply and thus, he had learned to work on his own craft. He had learned every nut and bolt on his UT-60 U-wing and exactly where it should be. Being relatively new to the Vigilant, he still had a hard time trusting a new crew with the ship he knew so intimately. He turned the hydrospanner forth and finally felt the satisfying click, putting the perfect pressure on the device as it set in place. "Perfect," he thought aloud, and started to close up the engine bay.

Foo found the din of the normal pre-mission dance of the mechanics and ground crew relaxing, so a new sound cutting through the normal ambiance drew his attention away from his toolkit. Members of Buccaneer began to file through the door leading to the hangar. Disorganized, fazed and sloppy, they moved towards their respective craft with an abnormal amount of bravado- of the liquid and false kind. Sans Loth-Cat, as they seemed to be fairly fatigued and Wolvinator, who, new to Buccaneer, looked to be still fairly tipsy...and lost, trying to find his craft.

Bulldog broke from the pack and wandered clumsily over to Foo's U-wing.

Foo smirked. "You guys look like shavit."

Bulldogs face screwed into a face of contempt. “You wouldn’t know a top notch strike squadron if one stumbled into your cockpit and farted in your face,” he said as his face broke into a friendly smirk coupled with a hearty chuckle. "And how the hell are you so chipper? You drank with us all night as well."

Foo cocked a smile. "I drank about half as much as you did, knowing that I had obligations to keep...Which apparently turned out to be keeping your sorry asses alive out there today."

Bulldog glanced down, noticing Foo’s hand shaking. The rattling of the hydrospanner in his hand gave it away further. "Seems you had more than you thought last night or you've lost your edge, Loot," he said with a kind smile and sarcastic edge to his voice as he abbreviated Foo’s rank.

Glancing down, Foo noticed his own disposition and covered his hand with his other, sighing in an attempt to appear more at ease than he currently felt. "I'm fine. Old habits die hard...you know."

*************************************

CRS Vigilant Hangar
POV: Loth-Cat

Dion checked some cable they had personally replaced recently on their distinctive Y-Wing, checking to see if it was secured properly. They were preparing it for the upcoming mission, under the watchful eyes of their droid, Casper. "How are you buddy? Feeling ready?" Dion asked as they felt a yawn coming on.

"Bwap Bwah waa," the droid responded.

"Oh don't worry about it, it's just that-" Dion pauses to yawn. "I didn't sleep as much."

"Bwap Bwah waa bwamp bwa?" asked Casper.

"To be honest, yeah, I'm nervous, more than usual I mean. Captain said this mission will be huge, the whole squadron will be there!"

"Bwah waa?"

"No! Is just as dangerous as any mission, but is also overwhelming. But I would never let anything happen to you, buddy. Besides, I trust the Captain."

"I hope you're not telling that droid about last night, Loth-Cat!" Bulldog said as he approached both of them, still rubbing his temples.

"I was just telling Casper how you won't let this mission go south," Dion said to Bulldog.

Bulldog threw his hands up in a calm-down gesture. "Hey, don't bet all your cards on me kid! But honestly, when have things ever gone wrong with me, huh?" Bulldog said while shrugging.

Dion laughed. "Well, at least I'm not nervous anymore boss."

"Good, now get in your cockpit pilot!" Bulldog ordered Dion as he left to check the others.

Dion looked around, and then shouted after his executive officer. “Captain, where’s the Major? I haven’t seen him yet.”

Bulldog turned and walked backwards while he was looking back at Dion. “He’s in the ‘fresher getting the last drops of caf out of his bladder! He might even be getting a catheter-woah!” Bulldog tumbled backwards over a fuel line that was running along the floor, rolling clumsily and sending his helmet skittering across the floor. He let loose a lengthy string of curses as he continued to sit where he’d come to a stop.

Dion sighed. “Ok, I’m nervous again.”

“Bwomp, Bwomp, Bwaaaaa.”

*************************************

CRS Vigilant Hangar
POV: Gnoizic

Most days, it was good to don the Mandalorian armor. It was oddly comfortable, dependably secure, reliably capable of clearing paths in crowded spaces. And no one ever really questioned keeping the helmet on, regardless of circumstance or even personal consistency. Known hardliner or no, Mandalorians were given a carte blanche cultural exemption to sport their armor at will—short of deep-cover assignments—instead of adhering to any more formal dress code.

The Alliance, and now New Republic, consistently proved accommodating for that sort of thing, making a point to stand up for the little people and respect all the beautiful, vibrant, and intriguing cultures of the galaxy, a stark contrast to their mostly greyscale, xenophobic archnemesis in the Empire. All good things that Gnoizic agreed with, supported, and fought to defend wholeheartedly.

Today, however, that “cultural exemption” meant masking a massive hangover, courtesy of his fellow Buccaneers and a few too many rodian splices. He cursed Iggy, not for the first time since his astoundingly loud wake-up call to a briefing he’d mostly ended up napping through, as he made his way to the hangar with his R2 unit, Tripwire. From what Gnoizic had gathered, the mission was a fairly straightforward bombing run on some already-hit Imperial holdout in a sector Trip would have programmed into his Y-Wing’s navicomp before he buckled in. A blue milk run if there ever was one, ideal for his still-groggy mental state.

“Hey there, LT!” came a yell that assaulted Gnoizic’s eardrums. He tapped his wrist display to turn down the maximum volume in his helmet down a few more decibels and looked up to see a mechanic, Reiya, waving at and walking towards him, datapad in hand. “Your ship’s all set, if you want to give it a once-over.” She peeked behind Gnoizic, smiled and added, “Ah, bringing Trip along for this inspection? Or were you planning on smuggling him aboard your B-Wing for this one?”

“My what now?” Gnoizic asked, probably not masking the surprise in his voice as well as he’d hoped.

“Your B-Wing,” Reiya repeated, a shadow of confusion creeping into her expression. “Got your request late last night to log some actual flight time in one. ‘ASAP. No exceptions or excuses.’ Whatever that means.”

I may kill someone. “Ah, of course! My B-Wing.” Gnoizic said casually, shaking his head. “Sorry, volume’s a little off in here,” he added, tapping the side of his helmet, then regretting it as it exacerbated his lingering headache.

[“No, you’re malfunctioning because your processor is overloaded with intoxicants,”] Tripwire interjected from behind him.

[“Whoa, whoa.”] Gnoizic shot back in droidspeak. [“Play along and I’ll schedule an extra oil bath or something for ya. Maybe scrounge up some scavenged Imperial bomb-tech.”]

[“Fine,”] came the single bleep acknowledgement.

“That didn’t sound too happy,” Reiya chimed in. “Trouble in paradise, you two?”

“He’s just gonna miss me, is all. Wanted to see me off, make sure everything’s up to his exacting standards.”

“Uh huh, sure,” Reiya said, with a knowing ‘I’m not buying it’ smile. “Anyway, your bird’s over here.” She guided the pilot and astromech across the hangar to a B-Wing, painted in Buccaneer Squadron’s signature green. “She’s loaded up to the gills—if the Mon Cal will forgive my expression—with proton bombs, and the gyro control module is primed for maximum spinnability.”

“Is that the technical term?” Gnoizic asked dryly.

Reiya cocked a wry smile. “No, but for all you need to concern yourself with, just trust me, it spins.”

“Fair enough,” Gnoizic said, walking over to a tool bench to grab a hydrospanner to make his half-assed inspection seem a little more legitimate.

Reiya faked a cough to catch his attention. “You notice anything out of place—you won’t, I checked—just give me a shout.” As Gnoizic nodded in her direction, Reiya moved on to another Buccaneer pilot—Ant, if he’d seen correctly—datapad at the ready.

“Alright, Trip. Let’s take a look.” The pair gave the B-Wing a quick onceover, checking sensors, weapon housings, thrusters—the works, effectively. As far as Gnoizic was concerned, this ship looked fresh off the assembly line, not a thing out of place. He climbed the ladder up towards the cockpit before realizing he was still carrying the hydrospanner. He tossed it down to his astromech, who caught it deftly with a manipulator arm. “Thanks for volunteering to check the ship!” he called down, attempting to keep his cover story going to anyone in earshot.

As he took a seat in the cockpit, Gnoizic watched as Tripwire clawed the hydrospanner into what he’d come to understand as an offensive gesture and wheeled towards the hangar’s exit doors. The droid’s muttered beeps and whistles were muffled by hangar activity, but he was inevitably tootling about how much of a waste of time the whole ordeal had been or how stupid his pilot was to not double-check what ship he was flying before dragging the droid all the way here.

“I’ll miss you too, buddy!” Gnoizic said, turning on the ship’s computers, warming the engines, and priming for takeoff. It was a beauty of a machine, with far more bells and whistles than the X-Wings and now-ancient Y-Wings he’d been more accustomed to flying over the years.

A voice floated over the clamor of hangar activity and caught his attention. “Go make some gnoiz!” Reiya shouted with a mock salute as Gnoizic’s cockpit sealed shut.

You try to make a catchphrase, and everyone’s a critic, Gnoizic thought, shaking his head as he finished up with preflight checks and activated the repulsors. “This is Buccaneer Two, ready to fly.” He hoped by the time the squadron got to Skoth that wasn’t a lie.

*************************************

CRS Vigilant Hangar
POV: Ant

Ant had mastered the ability to zone in before a mission, and that focus on centering himself before flight had kept him alive this far into his pilot career. It involved touching most of the exterior parts of his fighter in a specific sequence, and meditating on the intricacies of that part or system as to their combat capabilities and uses. Best not change things up now...

“You ready to roll, Flight Officer?”

Ant turned his head slowly as he tugged on one of the four Taim & Bak KX9 laser cannons of his X-Wing, feeling the familiar give of the system as the powered gimbals allowed the play in movement but would return them to centered position the moment he let go. Animal was sauntering by, his helmet between his arm and hip. “Yes, Major. Ready to roll,” he replied in a lackadaisical manner.

Animal paused, clearly troubled at the lackluster response he’d received to his question. He leveled a more examinatory eye in Ant’s direction to size the newer Buccaneer up. “Are you sure?”

Ant let go of the blaster and heard the whirr of the powered gimbal above the din of the hangar. “Yes, Major. I just… have a certain way of preparing myself, that’s all. It’s kept me alive this long, figure I shouldn’t go messing with it.”

Animal smiled as he mulled over the reply, and then nodded. “Who am I to mess with a man’s preflight rituals?” He held up a fist and then continued walking amongst the pilots as he checked in on their mental states.

Ant watched his commander go for a moment before resuming his ritual, which meant going to the other blaster cannon and hanging on it to make sure the gimbals and stabilizers worked as they should. He shook himself to clear his mind again, mildly annoyed that his ritual had been interrupted, even if it was an innocent and well-meaning interruption.

He gripped the barrel of the blaster cannon and hung from it, half-closing his eyes as he resumed the ritual. He hoped the interruption wasn’t a bad omen for the coming mission.

“Hey goofball.”

Ant’s heart leapt out of his chest as he let go of the cannon barrel and spun around before landing. Unfortunately, what should have looked smooth was bungled by some empty barrage rocket crates underfoot, sending him slipping to the deck on his backside. He sat there and looked up at the new interruption with butterflies in his stomach.

Standing just under one of his engines was 1st Lt. Jessie “Mouse” Ramsey, the Skull Squadron XO and the woman that kept appearing at important moments of his life since joining the Rebellion. She’d shown up after Endor and invited him into an intimate survivor’s party, which he’d gladly attended since so many of the green squadron pilots had been killed. She appeared again when the Vigilant was being crewed up and Renegade Wing was reforming, giving him one familiar face amongst a sea of strangers. And she was there after the Vigilant had barely escaped the ambush that had taken his wingman’s life, guiding him back into base when his mind was drained.

Each time she appeared, he felt rejuvenated. This time, it was no different. While he’d been annoyed that Animal had interrupted his preflight ritual, he was overjoyed that Mouse had appeared. All thoughts of playing it cool went out the window, however, as he hadn’t been prepared to see her. “HEY!” he blurted out loudly as he clumsily rose to his feet, internally screaming at the lack of smoothness in his actions and words.

Mouse recoiled playfully, miming a wince as she rubbed her ears. “Sheesh, I’m going to need ear protection around you.”

“That’s what she said!” Bulldog called out from his nearby Y-Wing, laughing raucously at his own joke. A few other nearby pilots chuckled at the old throwaway line.

Mouse did a double take as she heard the comment, and a look of amused confusion flitted across her face. “I, uh, did just say it?”

Ant was mortified at the attention of his XO and squadmates. “Don’t pay any attention to them,” he grumbled as he stepped closer to her, his breath catching in his chest as he once again looked into her eyes. “Whats, ummm, up?”

A bashful smile spread across Mouse’s face and she looked down at her feet, fidgeting a little with her hands. “Well… I was wondering if you wanted to, maybe, you know, go out sometime?”

His eyes widened as his heart picked up speed and his mind raced, stumbling over itself to both reply in the affirmative verbally as well as make sure he wasn’t doing anything goofy with his face or hands. Unfortunately, he had a dumbstruck look on his face, with his mouth hanging open in disbelief. He shook his head clear, and he quickly slammed his gaping mouth shut. Before he could give her a reply that could be understood verbally, he had to fight with his heart to slow down so he could focus on words making sense. Thankfully for him, another round of loud kissing noises and other catcalls echoed from all around him.

Mouse giggled and looked at her feet. “It would seem we’re being serenaded by your squadmates. I’ll… go, and you just get back to me on that, ok?” She started shuffling off rapidly without looking back, throwing a wave toward him and a round of obscene gestures at the rest of the nosy pilots in the area.

He couldn’t remember where he’d been during his preflight ritual and wasn’t sure if he had time to restart it and complete it properly, but he didn’t care. This was just the type of interruption to his superstitious ritual that he was happy to encounter.

Ant grabbed the first blaster cannon and hung with his eyes closed, but found himself humming happily along and unable to hear the mechanized gimbals doing their jobs.

*************************************

Skoth System
POV: Bulldog

The 9 Buccaneer fighters exited hyperspace safely outside of the asteroid belt. It was a stark difference compared to his first time coming to the system, where the aging C1-model astromech had dumped them out of hyperspace right in the middle of the tumbling rocks.

“All wings report in,” Animal’s voice called out.

“Bucc Two, standing by,” Gnoizic replied from his B-Wing.

“Three here,” Loth-Cat replied as they pulled their Y-Wing into formation.

“Buccaneer Four, standing by,” Crane replied nervously, abruptly correcting his X-Wing’s path by yanking his stick over.

“Six, ready to rock,” Wolvinator replied confidently. While it was his first combat mission with the squad, he was a veteran of Endor and knew what he was capable of.

“Seven, good to go,” Rev followed, rotating his B-Wing’s orientation to match the rest of the squadron.

“Eleven standing by,” Ant replied as he attempted to stifle a yawn. Even with a lighter hull configuration on his X-Wing, it still didn’t come close to matching the pure, unbridled speed of the A-Wings he was used to flying.

“Twelve here in one piece,” Bulldog said, waggling his nacelles. He scanned ahead to see where the mine locations would be. Chinning off his mic, he looked over his shoulder. “Weight, keep your scopes out for those mines.”

There was a long pause.

“Zero?” Animal asked eventually.

“Oh, right!” Foo replied. “Zero here, all good.”

“Glad you could join us, Zero,” Animal chided. “Ok, I suggest only Four, Six, and Eleven open up their S-Foils while we traverse the asteroid belt and minefield. Once we clear the other side, then open up for our attack.”

“Reason number nine-thousand and sixty-nine why I hate those flying crosses,” Bulldog joked over the comm in an attempt to lighten the mood. “Always catching my cannons on asteroids!” He was rewarded with a series of laughs and chuckles.

“Not everybody is comfortable flying a ship older than they are, Twelve,” Animal quipped back.

“I’ll fly whatever keeps me in one piece,” Ant chirped in, drawing plenty of mumbles of agreement.

“Ok ok, let’s reel it in,” Animal said, regaining command of the airwaves. “Once we start, we’re going radio silence. We’re going in reverse order. Keep it tight so we’re all in range of Zero so he can keep masking us. The hope from NRI is that the squadron mask should hide us from the ion mine detectors as well. Though, we won’t necessarily know if that’s true until we pass one...”

Bulldog grumbled as he gunned his throttle to max and took the first position in line. It made sense that he was in front due to his prior experience with Skoth, but that didn’t mean he had to like it. “Follow me in, boys. This belt is full of surprises, including rogue asteroids that like to pop out at you. The mines have been deployed, to my knowledge, on the asteroids closer to the planet in a more stable orbit.”

“You heard the man,” Animal replied. “Follow him in, and keep an eye out for the mines. Once we clear the belt, keep an eye out for fighters or that Acclamator. Silence from here on out unless it’s an emergency. Hit us with a mask, Zero!”

Foo deployed the first squadron mask, effectively cloaking all of the Buccaneers aside from himself from sensors. For his part, he attempted to hide as close in to Animal’s B-Wing as he felt safe doing to utilize that fighter’s masked signature to scramble his own.

Bulldog gritted his teeth and gripped his stick and throttle tightly. Asteroid field flying was never a fun experience, as it required almost as much attention as dogfighting. Almost. The only difference was that the asteroids weren’t actively trying to maneuver to shoot lasers at you. As if on cue, a rogue asteroid popped out of nowhere into his path. He jammed his foot down on the rudder to slew his Y-Wing out of the path of the surprise. “Close one, buddy,” he said quietly to his astromech, who tootled ominously in response.

Bulldog gently rolled his ship so he could see below his ship and keep an eye on the rocks in that half of the galactic plane. It wouldn’t do him any good if he ignored that half of the universe if it made him blind to a threat from ‘below’. Life didn’t care which direction the asteroid came from- if it hit you, you died.

*************************************

Acclamator Rising Star Bridge
POV: Phel Rastagar

“Captain, I’m seeing some activity in the asteroid field!”

Rastagar moved closer to his sensor operator. “Show me, Plurr.”

“Sensors detected new energy and heat signatures moments ago,” Ensign Plurr said as she pointed a stubby finger at the screen. “They’ve disappeared and reappeared three times since then.”

“Could it be asteroid collisions again?” Lieutenant Hawley asked as she ambled over. “This energy pattern is consistent with the multiple collisions we observed a few days ago.”

Rastagar nodded toward his executive officer as she studied the current sensor log side by side with the one she was referring to from three days ago. “Could be, or it could be New Republic fighters coming to finish the job they started weeks ago,” he said as he scratched his chin in thought.

“Why would they come back here?” Plurr asked nervously as the pudgy woman looked up at her two superior officers.

Rastagar met Hawley’s eyes, and the realization hit them at the same time. “The gun,” they said in unison. He quickly walked over to his communications officer. “What is the status of the deconstruction of the ion cannon?”

“Last update was that the important components had been removed and packed into shuttles, but the outer shell and a few of the more common electronic components still remained. Shall I check again?”

“No, that’s fine. Order those shuttles to lift off immediately and run toward the opposite side of the planet to rendezvous with us. I don’t want them falling victim to the coming attack,” Rastagar said as he moved closer to his helmsman. “Helm, plot a course to rendezvous on the opposite side of the planet with those shuttles. Shortest possible route. Take us through the atmosphere.”

The Lieutenant at the helm looked back in confusion, but once he locked eyes with Rastagar he nodded. “Helm copies, Sir.”

Hawley sidled up next to him as the deck began to vibrate. “Through the atmosphere?”

Rastagar nodded. “It should hide us from their scopes on the way in. Once we collect the shuttles, we’ll move back and cut off their exit vector.”

“Excellent tactical decision, Captain. Shall I alert the base to the coming attack?”

Rastagar nodded curtly at the compliment, but internally he was elated at having made a tactical decision that somebody else felt was clever. “Yes. Let our comrades on the deck know what’s coming and to get into shelter,” he said as he straightened up to his full height. “Let’s go pick these components up and then punish these interlopers for their temerity!”

*************************************

*

Skoth Asteroid Belt
POV: Rev

Rev was sweating profusely. While he hadn’t been in the lead and in charge of picking the pathway through the tumbling rock belt, you still had to keep your wits about you as the area your wingman traveled through could just as easily be obstructed by something else after they’d cleared, forcing you to forge your own path around the new obstacle.

It was a wonder that none of them had died. There had been close calls here and there, but they hadn’t died. Even the wing and a prayer from NRI that posited the squadron mask would protect their snubs from the mines’ detection sensors had been correct.

More good news. Once they’d cleared the asteroid belt, there were no TIE patrols, and the rumored Acclamator capital ship was nowhere to be seen. All things were turning up Buccaneer for this mission, and that worried the veteran pilot more than anything. He couldn’t exactly remember the last sortie he’d run where everything went according to plan.

The itch of paranoia started nagging him in the back of his mind. Being in the B-Wing meant he had very good peripheral views, but could not see below or behind him. This led to a less than comfortable situation for the pilot, who’d come up flying X and Y-Wings, both of which allowed a pilot to twist around and look behind them. It also offered those pilots an astromech companion to help monitor your rear arc. The B-Wing, for all its bells and whistles in the offensive capability department, certainly lacked in the speed, maneuverability, and pilot peace of mind departments.

“Lock S-Foils in attack position,” Animal’s voice called out over comms, jarring Rev from his twitchy thoughts. Rev complied, flipping the toggle that deployed his wings into the cross-shaped airframe the bomber was known for.

“Looks like the cap ship isn’t around,” Animal continued. “Let’s go back in proper order, with Zero at the rear with Twelve. Resume Bantha formation until further notice. When the target is located on sensors, we’ll do a Porkins Belly Run to minimize their AA fire and complete the strike with attack run Rancor Alderaan Niner. Zero, hit everybody with one more mask, and then execute a sharp dive and make a Horizon Approach. Twelve, stick with him. Execute.”

Rev mentally catalogued all of the battle orders his OC had just spat out rapid-fire and nodded. We go in a straight line, dive at high speed and a sharp angle for our run, then we all drop our bombs on an assigned vector by the order in which we reach the target. Foo hits us with a mask and then dives down toward the surface with Bulldog and approaches the target while terrain-flying. Easy peasy. It was a fine plan of attack on paper, but the itch in the back of his mind was becoming more insistent as they reached the planet’s atmosphere.

*************************************

Skoth Atmosphere
POV: Wolvinator

“I see four TIE Fighters on my scopes,” Ant’s voice called out over the comm.

“That’s not so bad,” Animal replied lightly. “Ok X-Wings, you’re up.”

Wolvinator toggled his sensors to bring the new enemies onto his console screen. The TIEs looked ill repaired to the point of clear pitting on their solar panel arrays and heavy charring on their ball cockpits, belying some heavy fighting with low levels of maintenance available. “These guys look beat to hell,” he snorted.

“Yeah, one of our guys set off some concussion missiles in the middle of their airfield last time we were here,” Bulldog replied with a wistful chuckle. “Then the Rogues picked off even more as they chased us out of the system.”

“Ah, leftovers,” Wolvinator quipped sardonically. He goosed his throttle forward, noting Ant next to him and Crane slightly behind them. While he was light-hearted and quick-witted outwardly, inside his stomach roiled. Head to head engagements were historically a winner for the New Republic, but the Imperials had proven time and time again that they were learning and making their fighters more durable with better quality armor, making what used to be quick and easy kills something more of a drawn-out affair. The upgrades hadn’t been put into effect with the entire fleet yet, as it surely was an expensive undertaking. It led to every head to head engagement being an uncertain affair filled with cautious dread for New Republic pilots as they now had to overestimate the amount of firepower to send rather than snap shots and move onto the next target for maximum coverage.

“Better leave them all to me,” Ant’s cocky voice cut in.

Wolvinator arched an eyebrow ironically. “Oh yeah? Why’s that?” Memories of the last time he and two other squadmates raced out ahead of the rest of the unit to engage fighters flashed through his mind. Back at Endor there had been insurmountable odds, his two wingmen versus the cloud of TIEs between the Death Star and Gold Squadron, but the feeling persisted nonetheless.

“Because, if you don’t mind my saying so,” Ant started, his voice belying a confident smile. “You’ve put on quite a few kilos since Endor, my friend. That’s why you’re in an X-Wing now and not an A-Wing. Can’t fit!”

Laughter echoed through the comm channel, his joining in as well but sounding hollow. His hands ached as they gripped the controls tighter. A cold sweat broke out in the small of his back, pooling there and causing him to shiver. His forearms twitched as they tensed, nudging the nose of his X-Wing about enough to be noticeable.

“Six, is there a problem?” Animal asked. “Your ship is wobbling.”

Wolvinator snapped out of his nervous paralysis, shaking his head clear sharply from side to side. Beads of sweat splattered against the side canopy windows. The nerves disappeared in that instant, and he was again in control of his emotions and reflexes. “I’m fine, Lead.”

“His new gut probably hit the stick,” Ant replied, bursting into more laughter.

Wolvinator snorted at the good-natured ribbing. “Oh yeah? Watch this!” He thumbed the boost toggle and his ship lunged forward, throwing him back into his pilot couch. He triggered his burst cannons before reaching max engagement range. Going for a conservative approach to make sure he hit his target with enough firepower to kill it regardless of the armor status, 5 of his 8 bursts connected and completely disintegrated the lead TIE fighter. “Scratch one eyeball!” he crowed.

Ant likewise hammered his own target shortly after with his own salvo. “Even steven!”

“Break to port, Six!” Crane called out as his ship caught up and started hurling red energy at another target, getting rewarded with a kill himself.

Before the fighters had been destroyed, they had sent fire back toward the Buccaneer X-Wings. Since Wolvinator had lunged out in front, he was the target of four fighters’ worth of green energy hurtling toward him.

Only the ingrained compliance with maneuver orders saved him. The first few bolts hammered his shields and started bucking his ship. But due to the warning and his instant action, he broke out of the line of fire without taking any damage save for a new bit of carbon scoring across the nose of his ship from a laser that made it through the shields.

The last survivor of the TIE fighters tucked in on his tail and kept slinging lasers in his direction wildly. Wolvinator looked over his shoulder as he snap-rolled into a jink in the opposite direction, but the series of evasive maneuvers proved unsuccessful in losing his pursuit. “He’s on me tight!”

Seconds later, Wolvinator’s astromech hooted triumphantly. Looking over his shoulder once again, he saw a fireball where his pursuit had been. “Nice shooting!”

“Your reflexes need work, old guy!”

Wolvinator’s brow scrunched up as he attempted to remember his age as well as Ant’s age. His eyes widened. “You’re older than me!” Wolvinator replied through fits of laughter.

*************************************

Skoth Atmosphere
POV: Foo

Foo’s sensors chirped as he settled into his spot at the back of the formation while the rest of the Buccaneers got close to the jungle canopy to avoid radar detection. He looked down at the alert and frowned.

TIEs began to pour out of a hidden jungle hangar nearby and turned sharply in pursuit of the attack group. Foo watched his radar, 2, 3, 5, 6, 8 TIEs headed towards their position. As the vulnerable rear of the attack force, he was keenly aware of the danger he was in. He looked at his radar and then through his viewscreen, and only one Y-Wing remained within a reasonable distance to defend him. Despite their numbers, they appeared to form up clumsily, as if unsure who was the leader and which formation to take before attacking.

"Umm, guys," he commed. "Bit of a problem..." It was too late though, most of Buccaneer was committed to the TIEs ahead or the objective.

Only Buccaneer Twelve responded. "I see them, Zero. You distract, I destroy."

’Kark’ Foo thought to himself, this is going to be more than difficult. However, the U-wing did have an edge over its adversaries. It was far more streamlined than the TIEs and could perform better in atmospheric conditions. He watched his radar as two TIEs approached quickly while the rest were still forming up. 'Alright let's crinkin dance' he thought to himself as he kicked his U-wing upwards. The TIE’s pulled up as well, following in hot pursuit. They fired at maximum distance trying to hit the U-wing as it corkscrewed though the sky. Shots were rebuffed by the U-wing's substantial shields as Foo continued to climb; continuing to watch his radar, he watched his adversaries’ energy deplete until the final moment he was waiting for...

NOW!

He kicked the rudder of his U-wing as hard as he could, watching the TIE fighters flutter in the air as their attempted attack failed due to the aerodynamics of their ships. His U-wing rounded over completing a hammerhead and dropped menacingly on his would-be pursuers. He opened up with his two Taim & Bak KX7 laser cannons, ripping the first apart in seconds as it floundered in flight and then the second. He flew through the explosions of both ships and then called out to Buccaneer Twelve. "The rest are yours!"

Continuing to drop toward the canopy again, he garnered the attention of the remaining six TIEs. Foo pulled back as hard as he could, skimming the treetops. He smiled as he heard the scratching and thumping of the upper branches of the jungle made contact with his low-flying ship. He had all six TIE Fighters jockeying to burn down the easy target he was making himself intentionally. Just before the TIEs could open fire, his U-Wing flew underneath Bulldog’s Y-Wing heading the opposite direction.

The Y-wing’s rotary cannon opened up, shredding every last one of the TIEs in pursuit. The first victim’s ball cockpit was obliterated in the first hail of scarlet bolts, sending both solar panels tumbling into the treetops immediately below it. The starboard panel caught a treetop at just the right angle and tumbled lazily through the air. The second through fifth TIEs all ate blaster bolts in quick succession, but the sixth TIE in line got sheared in half by the tumbling solar panel of the first TIE. The pilot tumbled out of his split ship and smacked into a tree trunk at high speed as he fell.

“Scratch Six!” Bulldog shouted excitedly as he rolled his ship around to resume his part of the attack run.

“It’s easy when I get them all to line up for you,” Foo said with a relieved chuckle as he rolled his shoulders to release some of the tension that had built up during the ambush.

*************************************

Skoth Imperial Base
POV: Gnoizic

The ion mines in the asteroid belt near Skoth had been enough of a wakeup call to jolt Gnoizic’s lingering hangover away, at least for the time being. Transit to the planet’s atmosphere let him put the B-Wing through its paces, prime his weapons for any incoming combatants, and test out the vaunted “spinnability” of the craft. Just as Reiya had promised back aboard the Vigilant, it absolutely spun, and he had no idea what else it really did for the ship. After a few spins in the upper atmosphere, he set it and forgot all about it. Good enough.

“So far so good,” Loth-cat said, breaking up the relative comms silence.

And, like clockwork, Gnoizic’s scanners picked up a new signal. Fighters, inbound on their position.

“Welp, that’s what you get for saying something about it,” Animal said. “Form up and stay alert. Doesn’t look like they’re throwing too much at us after what our escorts engaged already.”

The three B-Wings and Loth-cat’s Y-Wing that comprised the bombing flight angled to face off against the new threat. Half a squadron of TIE Fighters soon appeared and opened fire in what passed for an honorable joust, or at least what passed for one where one side had numbers and the other had shields and armor. Laser fire splashed on the New Republic fighters’ shields as they returned fire of their own before breaking off. The return salvo converged on the lead TIE, leaving it nowhere to escape, despite its best efforts. Its port wing sheared off, sending it spinning toward the jungle below.

Its wingmates, however, screamed in, hellbent on avenging their fallen comrade. Each started to pursue a different bomber, with two pairing up on Loth-cat’s Y-Wing, apparently trying to knock out the more sluggish target first and work their way through the rest.

“Three, you’ve picked up two tails,” Gnoizic noted. “I’m right above you. I scratch your back, you scratch mine, alright?”

“Sure!” Loth-cat replied.

“Pull up on my mark… Now!” Gnoizic sent his B-Wing into a sharp dive, watching ahead as Loth-cat’s Y-Wing mirrored the move upward, two TIEs in tow. Something looked off with Gnoizic’s targeting reticle, but he managed to line up a shot that blew one of the TIEs away. As Loth-cat’s Y-Wing passed under his B-Wing, he noticed that his own tail had met its end as well. “Great shot, kid! I’m coming back around for that second one. Just keep him off your back.”

“That’s the plan!” Loth-cat acknowledged, a small hint of stress entering their voice.

Gnoizic pulled his B-Wing around to see Loth-cat leading their trailing TIE Fighter away from the rest of the flight and throttled up to pursue. As he closed into firing range, the TIE continued to dance just out of his reticle, scoring potshots to slowly chew through Loth-cat’s shields. C’mon, you bastard, just sit still for a second.

None of his shots found purchase. Then, an explosion filled his cockpit.

Screaming through the debris cloud was an X-Wing.

“Quit hogging all the fun, you guys.” Gnoizic recognized the new voice as Wolvinator.

“Nice of you boys to stop by,” Gnoizic said, letting out a sigh of relief he wasn’t aware he’d been holding onto. “Think you can handle it from here?”

“In our sleep, at this point. We’ll clean up your mess. You get on with the fireworks!”

“Roger that,” Animal said, joining the conversation. “Gnoiz, looks like your chase has you two closing on the target area. Why don’t you do the honors of getting this party started? The rest of us will be right behind you.”

“Alright, let’s make some gnoiz.” Gnoizic said coolly, only to be met with a chorus of groans.

“You’re not still trying to make that a thing, are you?” Animal prodded.

“Like hell I’m not!” Gnoizic shot back. “What else are you going to call it? Bombs drop, the whole thing goes tchew-tchew-tchew” then he paused before imitating the crescendo of proton bomb explosions stacking on top of one another, an ion cannon’s reactor going critical, and the slow fade of explosions making way for the rise of a bloodcurdling scream of a Coruscanti human male being launched into the stratosphere. “Y’know, gnoiz!”

A resigned sigh came over the comms from Rev, who had dealt with enough of his theatrics over the years in Red Squadron. “Call it whatever you want, Two, just get that drop off.”

“On it,” Gnoizic replied. But then he hesitated. Something wasn’t quite lining up.

“Bottom of the ship needs to be facing down, Gnoiz,” Animal’s voice, in a mock training tone, chimed in.

“Which way’s down when your ship can gyroscope?”

“Uh… definitely not your way.”

What? But the horizon looks… Gnoizic looked at the display. Sure enough, he’d positioned the body of the ship over the cockpit. A quick scan of his instruments indicated which way he’d need to rotate the body to have the bombs fire “down” towards the surface. He looked up to see the tree coverage beginning to clear enough to reveal the ion cannon at the target sight. “Screw this,” he muttered. With no time to second-guess leveling the still not overly familiar gyroscopic controls, he simply kicked his rudder pedal to roll the whole craft 90 degrees to starboard, giving him a perpendicular view of the ground, and dropped his payload on the target site. Just like the simulations, he thought mockingly. He juked to port to pull up and away from the blast zone as the rest of his flight finished off bombing the ion cannon.

“Looks like we got it,” Rev confirmed.

“Yup, sure did. Great work, team,” Animal added. Then jokingly, “And excellent form, Gnoiz! You’ll have to teach the rest of the squad your technique! You should volunteer for B-Wing duty more often.”

“Were you the one who put me up to this?” Gnoizic asked, almost laughing, still unsure about what all had happened last night leading to his supposed late-night craft request.

“What? Noooo. Details are a little fuzzy, but I’m pretty sure the whole thing was your idea.”

“That’s how I remember it,” Loth-cat agreed. “Some bravado-filled nonsense about always learning better by being thrown into the heat of battle. Very Mando. Or maybe just some excuse to reach out to your mechanic friend?”

“Where you at, Foo?” Gnoizic asked the squadron’s nearby support pilot, trying to change the subject as he fiddled with the gyroscopic controls again. “Bombs are away, target’s down. We could use a mask to cover our exit, if it’s not too much trouble. Hell, I’ll buy you a drink even if it is.”

*************************************

Skoth Imperial Base
POV: Foo

Foo chopped the throttle back to keep pace with Buccaneer 12's lumbering Y-wing. They had continued to fly low over the treetops since the ambush with the hope of avoiding any more surprises.

He pulled back on the stick to avoid a particularly large crest and was greeted with a vivid scene. Various points on the base were alight with fire and smoke, the backdrop of the fading sun cast light over the whole area with a bright red, backlighting the columns smoke lifting into the sky.

Foo whistled out loud, forgetting his comms were still active.

Animal response was immediate and terse. "The hell have you two been!?!"

"Dealing with an ambush,” Bulldog replied matter-of-factly. “Where do you want us?"

"Ambush? never mind, we need you to hit the landing pad. Several craft are still on the ground and we don't want them interrupting our little party here. Then we’d love it if you could mask us on our exit, if it’s not too much trouble for a U-Wing driver."

Foo and Bulldog both double tapped their comms to signal acknowledgement and banked into their assigned target. Foo cut the throttle a little more and let Bulldog slip ahead; the Y-wings rotary cannon being far more effective for this sort of thing, and settled onto his wing.

The Y-wing spat fire over the pad, ripping down TIEs in waiting and various other craft and equipment. Foo found a particularly inviting target; a fuel tank, sitting out in the open. He unleashed his chin mounted laser cannons and was rewarded with a spectacular blast.

The shockwave expanded, knocking over a couple TIEs that were still standing and scattered the fleeing personnel. One particular soul cartwheeled and slammed into a nearby cart used for tools and crumpled into a disfigured heap.

As the blast reached his craft, Foo felt his ship buffet; forcing him to pull up. The damp air condensed off the nose of his U-wing obscuring his view for a moment during the maneuver. He released the yoke and it dissipated, now able to see 12 pulling off as well.

“Look at that explosion!” Wolvinator cheered.

“We’ll make a Bucc of you yet,” Bulldog chuckled over the comm.

Foo smiled at the compliment. He continued to follow Bulldog’s Y-Wing, but was surprised when the wishbone wheeled around for another run. Belatedly he mirrored the maneuver. “Uh, another run on the grounded fighters?”

“Nah,” Bulldog answered. “I have been here before. I’m just going to knock out their floodlights to really ruin their night.”

Foo was perplexed. “Lights? Are they afraid of the dark on this planet?”

“I’ve been here at night.” The shudder in Bulldog’s voice was evident as he replied quietly. “You would be scared too.” The Y-Wing lined up for a run along the wall where a series of floodlights were installed along the entire perimeter.

Over the whine of his engines and wind buffeting his ship, Foo still heard the Y-Wing’s rotary cannon begin to spool up. Seconds later, the Y-Wing stitched the wall along its entire path, destroying all of the light emplacements as the stream of rapid-fire laser bolts struck them in sequence. At the end of the wall, the Y-Wing pulled up and headed toward the rest of the squadron. Foo continued to follow along, still unsure why his erstwhile wingman made the floodlights a priority over what appeared to be troop barracks buildings nearby.

“Ok Buccs,” Animal’s voice broke in. “This place is toast. Let’s form up for exfil on the U-Wing!”

“I have a name, you know,” Foo replied snarkily.

*************************************

Acclamator Rising Star Bridge
POV: Phel Rastagar

Rastagar clenched his teeth as he heard the screams of the helpless base personnel being torn asunder by the spiders after the light system of one wall was destroyed. The pilot that had carried that attack to completion knew exactly what they were doing, meaning they had personal experience with the planet or been briefed by somebody with that experience. That fact reduced the possible pool of pilots to those that had managed to escape on a stolen TIE Reaper months prior. He forced himself to turn away from the viewport so he wouldn’t have to see the planet where his comrades were being eaten alive.

“Ready some fighters on the front deck and prepare to open our main cargo door to launch more. I don’t want to wait for the blasted assembly line to deploy them piecemeal!”

“Understood, Captain,” Hawley said as she stepped toward the flight controller’s station to relay the orders.

Rastagar stood as he looked out at the planet. His sensors told him exactly where the New Republic fighters were and where they’d exit the atmosphere, and his ship was in their direct pathway out. The entire crew heard the screams from the personnel on the ground as the spider monsters invaded the base and ripped into their saferooms one by one. The rage within him blossomed as he knew they were unable to render proper aid to the poor souls within the timeframe they would need to be rescued alive. “We are going to blast these rebel scumbags to dust for what they did to our friends!”

The crew cheered vigorously, and the cheer echoed from other parts of the ship. Apparently one of his officers had enabled the PA system and carried his last declaration across the entire ship.

“Getting a visual, Captain!”

“What do we have inbound?”

“I see… Three X-Wings.”

Hawley snorted. “That can’t be all of them.”

“Correction, I have three B-Wings too. Wait, two Y-Wings as well! And one U-Wing.”

“Nine fighters? Easy pickings,” Hawley sneered.

“Open frontal bay aperture and the main cargo bay door,” Rastagar growled. “Launch all fighters!”

“Confirm, ALL fighters?” Hawley asked with an arched brow.

Rhastagar looked his XO square in the eyes. “ALL!”

The scream of TIE engines filled the bridge as 18 TIEs deployed immediately through the two different openings. Rastagar watched as they flitted around the Rising Star to form up properly before engaging. Once in a defensive formation, the fighters surged forth to intercept the coming New Republic fighters. As they left, the whine of TIE engines within the ship died down to a lower idling thrum.

“Why aren’t we launching more fighters?!”

“The rotational mechanism is having technical difficulties due to the earlier engagement with the spiders from the surface,” Hawley reported. “Apparently the technician responsible for the inspection was one of those killed, and the new tech didn’t have time to get to it.”

Rastagar cursed inwardly. He fought to get his emotions under control before speaking. “What is our estimated time for it to be repaired? We need to launch more fighters.”

“Unknown, Captain,” Hawley replied with a wince. “Chief says it’s a mess right now.”

Rastagar nodded. “Turn the ship to give the rebels our broadside. We need to help those fighters as best we can. None of the rebels shall escape while we’re still breathing.”

*************************************

***** To be continued next week...