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Rogue Choices

By: Dobber

Rogues Gallery

The Recruits

Major Andrew “Dobber” Dobson – Current XO of Buccaneer Squadron, former OC of Blue Squadron.

Captain Dia Tann – blue-skinned female Twi’lek. Former XO of Blue Squadron. Currently serves under General Syndulla as a flight captain running missions with Hail and Meteor Squadrons. Is also Commander Dobson’s partner and love-interest. Can be good-natured and caring but has a temper when challenged.

1st Lieutenant Miran Bellios – human male from Ord Mantell. Currently serves with Echo Squadron. All-around common-sense kind of guy who works well as a team member.

Captain Lyn Batoon – red-skinned female Twi’lek from a small colony in the Outer-Rim. Serves with Siracco Squadron. Can be very compassionate, though is not afraid to take on a challenge or assert herself. Also has a very sensual nature, enjoying numerous pleasurable activities.

1st Lieutenant Ri Mellira – female Togruta. Shy and reserved, but skilled and confident in a starfighter. Member of Star Squadron.

Captain Shiz Cir – male Mirilian. Spent two years in the racing circuit before joining the Alliance. Eager and genial, and a skilled starfighter pilot. Flies with Sunburst Squadron.

2nd Lieutenant Nirobi Thar – black female pilot from Naboo. Flies with Hush Squadron. Keeps to herself, but skilled with an X-wing.

Commander Kal Grixx – a battle-hardened human male. Extensive experience with Dynamo Squadron. Has a troubled past and is very domineering in combat situations as well as confrontational outside of the cockpit.

2nd Lieutenant Grinmigu “Grin” Bek – male Talz with a decorated history in Ice Squadron. A decent pilot with a knack for adding herbs and spices to enhance meals.

Captain Nezrine Dalla – dark-skinned human female from Dinwa Prime. Serves under Diamond Squadron.

Rogue Squadron

Rogue 1

Lieutenant Colonel Chris “Jalb_k” Reynolds – Current OC of Rogue Squadron.

Rogue 5

1st Lieutenant Nick “Jasted” Finelli – Member of Rogue Squadron.

Rogue 6

Major Tony “Thanatos” Marco – Member and current XO of Rogue Squadron.

Rogue 8

1st Lieutenant Josh “Hellcat” Kinney – Member of Rogue Squadron

Rogue 9

Captain Roy “Lock” Callahan – Member of Rogue Squadron

Rogue 12

1st Lieutenant Andy “Bulldog” Clark - Member of Rogue Squadron

Prologue

Major Dobson spun his X-wing away from the onslaught of green laser fire pouring towards him. The first TIE Fighter screamed past him. Its wingman was not so lucky. As Dobson squeezed the trigger, scarlet red laser bolts shot forth towards their target. Two of them connected with the second TIE Fighter, and as Dobson continued to race onward it exploded into a ball of fiery orange gas. As part of the explosion cloud engulfed his fighter craft, a pair of laser bolts rocked his ship from behind. His artoo unit gave a shrill howl as a message sprung up on the computer screen.

TIE Interceptor! read the message.

“Dammit,” he muttered as he rebalanced his rear deflector shields and poured his remaining laser energy into them. Placing his left hand on his throttle, he pushed it forwards and began weaving his craft to avoid further fire. He lurched back in his seat as his X-wing accelerated to its maximum speed. Through the cracked windshield of his cockpit, he could see the domineering white figure of the Imperial Star Destroyer Monarch. A storm of green fire lanced out in every direction from its turbolaser batteries, chasing other starfighters or firing at the other cruisers nearby.

“Andrew,” came Dia’s voice over his headset, “I’m caught in the Monarch’s tractor beam. Ejection system is down. Other systems not responding. They’re pulling me in!”

“Three,” came another stern voice over his radio. It was Lieutenant Colonel Reynolds. “You’re the only one with warheads left. Destroy the target!”

Twisting his X-wing right, barely avoiding another stream of laser fire from his pursuer, he gave a quick glance at his display. One proton torpedo remained in his arsenal. Thumbing his missile control switch, he armed it.

“Andrew,” Dia cried, “help!”

“Three,” barked Reynolds, “take the shot or you’ll never make it with us!”

As the tone of his targeting computer hummed to attempt a lock, he twisted left, then right again. He could see the profile of her X-wing growing closer as he raced towards her, and could only watch it being pulled into the gaping maw that was the Star Destroyer’s main hangar. He knew he had an impossible choice to make.

A twisted knot clenched his stomach, and he felt his chest tighten. He made the only choice that he could. Feeling a lump beginning to form in his throat, he fought back tears.

“Do it now, Three!!”

“Andrew!!”

“I’m sorry, Dia,” he managed to choke out as he closed ground on his target. The massive shape of the Star Destroyer filled most of his view now. Several green laser blasts began making their way toward him, and he re-balanced his shields once more. A laser blast from the Interceptor hit him from behind, rocking his ship again. “I have to do this.”

“I know,” she said sadly after a moment. “Do it. I love you.”

Rolling his fighter, he squeezed the trigger and dove down and away. The last torpedo lanced forward towards its target.

“I love you too,” he replied.

Glancing quickly over his left shoulder, he saw the torpedo’s blue-streaked profile connect with its target, causing it to erupt into a ball of flame.

And as his X-wing shot away from the underside of the Star Destroyer, TIE Interceptor still in pursuit, he knew that she was gone.

Chapter 1

[Captain’s Office, ISD-II Monarch -- 1800 hours]

Captain Brinna Gaspra sat behind the desk in her office on the Imperial Mark-Two Star Destroyer Monarch. She could hear and feel the gentle hum of the ship’s systems as she worked away to finalize her next operation. Her desk, much like her office, was spartan in design. A single data pad lay in front of her. Its contents were known only to her, but the instructions from Tol Barand were clear.

He had approved of her plan, with a few modifications to deal with any unforeseen contingencies. If she read between the lines carefully, it almost seemed as if she had finally earned Barand’s respect.

Almost.

Her attention was broken only by the chime at the door to her office, indicating someone was here to see her.

“Enter,” she said without looking up, pressing a button on her console. The door quietly whisked open and closed behind her Executive Officer as he entered the room.

“Good evening, Captain,” he said as he entered the room.

Looking up, she met his gaze as he stopped just short of her desk. She made note of the small cylindrical shape he held in his hands. It was a data rod, and based on the size and color of it, one that carried vital information.

“What do you have for me, Chief?” she asked curtly.

“Priority message for you, ma’am. Given the level of security attached with the incoming signal, I thought it best to deliver the information personally.”

“Place it on my desk,” she said tersely. He stepped forward and laid the cylinder down at an angle within arms reach of her. “Has anyone else read the information contained on it?” she asked.

“No ma’am,” he said carefully with measured breaths. “The intel team is operating under strict guidelines as per your orders.”

“Excellent, as always, Chief. You are dismissed.”

She waited until her first officer was gone to pick up the data rod and place it into the console to the right of her desk. As her computer screen flickered to life, a brief message appeared across it from her agent in the field.

Operation Phoenix successful.

A small smile spread across her face as she finished reading the message. It had taken her and Barand weeks to plan every detail to this point. Weeks to make everything so perfect. And personal. If their plan worked -- well, mostly her plan, really -- it would strike new fear into the New Republic and set them off balance. Hopefully long enough for Barand to make the next move to whatever he was planning next.

Taking the data rod from the console, she held it in both hands. Then, applying all the force she could, she broke it in two. Getting up from her desk, she walked over to a small panel on the far wall. Opening it up, she disposed of the broken fragments into the garbage chute like she had all of the others before that. Returning to her computer console, she called the Bridge.

“Captain Gaspra to the Bridge,” she said into the comm. “Initiate refuse protocols, then make the jump to hyperspace. We’re done here.”

Minutes later, the Monarch had entered hyperspace to its next destination, leaving the small collection of broken data rods and other scrap components to drift off into space forever.

[CRS Vigilant -- 1830 hours]

Lieutenant Colonel Chris “Jalb_k” Reynolds sat behind the desk in his small office. Data pads and reports littered the working area in front of him. On the other side of the desk sat Rogue Squadron’s Executive Officer, Major Tony “Thanatos” Marco. Jalb let out a sigh and rubbed his tired eyes with his thumb and forefinger.

“Need another shot of caf?” asked Thanatos, glancing up from the data pad he was holding.

Jalb glanced at him and shook his head.

“If I have any more caf,” he said, “I might as well be a vending machine. How long have we been at this?”

“Six hours,” said Thanatos with a yawn. He leaned back in his chair and tossed the data pad onto the desk.

“Six bloody hours and no real progress,” grumbled Jalb. “Seems like nowadays everyone wants to be in Rogue Squadron. We don’t need just any nerf herding pilots. We need the best pilots.”

“Agreed,” said Thanatos as he picked up another data pad and began scrolling through the list of names and applications. “But can you blame them? The New Republic has been receiving more recruits than the Alliance ever had at once. We’re making real progress against the Empire -- or, what’s left of it.”

“No,” said Jalb, leaning back in his chair to stretch, “I can’t. But we need quality pilots. Most of the new applicants and transfers we’ve had haven’t lasted very long. We need to assemble a team that flies well, and stays alive. We’re Rogues,” he finished as he ended his stretch and crossed both arms across his chest, “the best of the best, and nothing less.”

“Careful,” chuckled Thanatos as he took a sip from his mug, then pointed it towards Jalb. “If you go around saying that, you might get promoted to Senior Recruiting Officer or something.”

Jalb gave him a weak smile.

“If that were to happen, I could at least sound good doing so. I am an eloquent orator, after all. Okay,” he continued, leaning forward, “let’s focus on only the applicants we know would do the best based on their histories. Whom do we have?”

“Let’s see,” said Thanatos. “We have six open spots on the roster. We’ve agreed that pilots Grixx, Bellios, Cir, and Batoon are qualified enough to try out. All have impressive pilot files and records with one or more New Republic squadrons. That leaves two other spots officially open.”

“Okay,” said Jalb, rubbing his chin. “Who else can we slot in there?”

“There are two others that might be solid fits,” said Thanatos as he picked up another data pad. He met Jalb squarely in the eyes. “If you’re willing to give them a chance.”

“Shoot,” said Jalb.

Thanatos handed the data pad to him.

Jalb paused for a moment after scrolling through the information to take in what Thanatos had suggested. “You’re kidding!” he exclaimed as he looked up at Thanatos.

“Nope.”

The data pad made a clattering sound as Jalb dropped it on top of the others in front of him.

“You know those two have a very … colored history together, right?” he asked.

“I do. But Major Dobson and Captain Tann do deserve a chance. They’re strong veterans, both joining up shortly after Yavin. Both have experience leading squadrons and flight groups within squadrons for multiple engagements and tours of duty. They can fly a variety of craft, too. And I am sure,” finished Thanatos, “that their time apart has allowed them to gain some maturity with respect to their … relationship.”

“Don’t remind me,” said Jalb flatly. He had had the great misfortune several months earlier on walking in on them in Dobson’s quarters the night before the Battle of Endor. While technically they hadn’t been doing anything morally inappropriate, their actions as Commanding and Executive Officers of the now disbanded Blue Squadron were questionable.

Dobson had ended up being transferred to Buccaneer Squadron on the Vigilant as its new Executive Officer, while Tann had been demoted for her actions and transferred to General Hera Syndulla’s task force. The entire situation had been, to say the least, awkward.

“If they are successful,” said Thanatos as he set his mug down, “it could work so long as they are able to keep their working relationship professional. And besides, they wouldn’t be the first couple in a squadron or battle group, nor will they be the last.”

“True,” said Jalb, mulling things over in his mind. After a few moments he sat forward and waved his right hand up in the air. “All right, let’s get on with it. Make the call. Schedule these six to report for immediate testing. I’ll let you select four others from the list that you think are qualified to try the training program. We’ll run them through a series of simulation and live-action tests to gauge their mettle and ability, as well as exercise routines. If they truly want to be Rogues, they’ll have to prove it. And I’ll be damned sure to make this the most challenging program of their lives. Oh, and notify the other Rogues. They’ll be on training duty, too.”

“The best of the best, and nothing less,” chimed Thanatos as he and Jalb began gathering up the data pads in front of them.

***

[CRS Vigilant -- Lounge -- 1930 hours]

Lieutenant Colonel Michael “Mighty” Tolle and Major Andrew “Dobber” Dobson sat at the bar of the Vigilant’s lounge section. The IG-unit serving droid Iggy finished pouring them their drinks before walking away, muttering something about being tired of serving tea, earl grey, hot to the patrons who had been requesting it as of late. Both shook their heads in wonderment at the droid.

“Of all the beings to survive the destruction of the Liberty,” said Tolle, “I will never get used to that droid.”

Andrew let out a chuckle. “There’s an old saying I heard once,” he said, taking a sip of his non-alcoholic beverage.

“Oh?” asked Mighty.

“Yes. ‘The Force works in mysterious ways.’ Don’t ask me how or why,” he said, raising a hand in the air, “it just does.”

Mighty let out a chuckle as well and took a sip from his beverage. “Well,” he continued, licking his lips, “the Force must be playing a cruel joke on the universe if it wants a droid who can’t handle seeing the color pink every day.”

Both men took another drink from their beverages, savouring the much-needed reward after a long day of exercises and patrol duty. Andrew set his drink down and leaned forward against the counter, both of his arms resting against it, and turned to look at Mighty.

“I’ve been meaning to tell you,” he said after a moment, “I’ve put in an application to Rogue Squadron.”

Tolle gave a quick hiccough into his cup before wiping his mouth and placing the mug down on the counter. He turned to face Andrew.

“You what?!”

“I told you, I put in --”

“Yes, you nerf herder, I heard you the first time. But you’re doing it now? In the middle of a campaign against Tol Barand?”

“Is it a problem?”

“Is it a problem?” repeated Mighty. “Damn right it is! You’re my Executive Officer, and Buccaneer is short on pilots. I need you.”

Andrew held up a hand to prevent Tolle from protesting further.

“All right, I get it. I’m a valuable asset to the team, and you couldn’t live without me.”

“That’s not it,” said Mighty, shaking his head. “Do you realize how much paperwork will be involved with finding a new Executive Officer plus new pilots to fill the roster? How much paperwork I'll have to do? By myself? And who would be my new XO?”

“There’s always the new recruits in the training squadrons. You also have an excellent set of remaining pilots to choose from, like Rev and Rogue. I’m sure you’ll manage,” Andrew said with a grin. “And besides, I’m not guaranteed entry. I could end up staying in Buccaneer.”

“And what,” said Mighty, taking another drink from his mug, “does Dia think of you risking your neck to join the toughest and most dangerous squadron the New Republic has in its arsenal?”

Finishing another sip from his drink, he eyed Mighty. “She’s actually put in an application, too,” he answered.

“Huh. You two have really thought of everything, haven’t you? Think that Jalb will be happy with two lovebirds in his squadron?”

“I think we can make it work, and be more professional,” Andrew said. Reaching into one of his flight suit pockets, he pulled out a small box and placed it on the counter. Opening it, he saw Tolle’s eyes grow wide at the ring contained inside of it. The ring was made of a gold band, and while the stone placed in the center of it was no diamond, it was still a gorgeous ruby red.

“By the stars and cosmos,” he said, “how much did that thing cost?!”

“I had to use up the last of my winnings from the Contessa’s Thunderbolt Cup race a while back, plus trade in some day passes I had tucked away for extra credits. It’s a custom job. The stone is from our diving trip during our time at her aunt’s resort. I had it made into a diamond shape -- a very expensive process, I might add.”

“So, what,” asked Mighty, his mouth agape. “You’re just going to propose to her when she comes aboard? She is coming aboard, right?”

“That’s the plan. But I’m only going to do so if we’re both successful. We’ve been talking about our future and--”

Just then a firm hand clasped down on Andrew’s right shoulder.

“Now then,” came a cool, crisp voice behind him. He knew that voice anywhere. “What do we have here?” Jalb said, picking up the box and admiring the contents inside. Andrew turned to look over his shoulder at his stern face. “A ring! I hope you’re not planning to propose to your commanding officer, Major. We both know what happened last time,” he said with a low voice. Tolle gave a quick snort of amusement.

“No, Lieutenant Colonel--” Andrew began before Jalb cut him off again.

“I received your application for Rogue Squadron, Major,” Jalb said. “Do you think that you and Dia, if you are successful -- and that’s a big if -- could keep your hands off of one another? Or would you both decide to give Rogue Squadron a new name and identity.”

By this time one of the other Rogue Squadron pilots had made his way over to the bar counter, and stood behind Andrew and Jalb. Andrew turned quickly to see that it was Andy “Bulldog” Clark. A wicked grin spread across Bulldog’s face. Before Andrew could say anything further, Bulldog called out loudly, “Well, well, well, what do we have here Lieutenant Colonel?”

With that, every pilot and crew member in the lounge stopped what they were doing and looked towards them. Jalb removed his firm hand from Andrew’s shoulder and took a few steps away, still holding the ring box in his hands, to address the crew.

“It would seem,” he said loud enough for everyone to hear, “that we have a new applicant for Rogue Squadron in our midst. Major Dobson here thinks that he has what it takes to be one of us. And, it would seem, that he intends to have made a proposition for his partner, whom I’m sure some of you know, to join him -- quite possibly in holy matrimony if this ring is what I think it is.”

Andrew’s face began to turn a hot red from embarrassment. He’d never suspect that Jalb would do something like this in front of so many crew members. As he quickly looked at the crowd, he thought he saw two or three of the female crew members smile in excitement as Jalb held the ring for all to see.

“There’s one thing you all should know: Rogue Squadron is not just any squadron. We are the best. And we expect the best. Major Dobson’s actions during his time with the Alliance and now the New Republic are commendable -- though certainly at times, questionable. Especially with, one might say, his personal relationships.”

A few chuckles rose up from the crowd. Andrew’s face, he was sure, turned an even hotter shade of red.

“While Major Dobson,” Jalb continued, “is more than welcome to try his hand at a spot in our illustrious squadron, I’d like to also make it known that there is no shame in applying and not making the cut. Rogue Squadron often flies the most dangerous, daring, and sometimes fatal, missions. I am sure that he would always be welcomed back into Buccaneer Squadron. Or,” finished Reynolds, turning to give a quick wink to Mighty and Bulldog, “he could always use his skills and talents to create a new squadron for the Vigilant. I’ve thought of a few names, and ‘Snuggle Squadron’ has an appropriate ring to it.”

With that, a bout of raucous laughter erupted from the crowd. Andrew leaned against the counter and placed a palm over his face to hide his embarrassment.

“Now then,” Jalb continued as he placed the ring box back on the counter, “there is one final matter of business to attend to. Entry into Rogue Squadron is rigorous, and demanding. So much so that one might be a bit thirsty after having to complete all the work involved.”

Andrew spread his fingers apart to look at Mighty. “Oh no,” he muttered. “He wouldn’t.”

“Oh yes,” replied Mighty, taking another sip from his drink, “he would.”

“Major Dobson’s application was so impeccable that I am sure he would have no problem paying for a round of drinks -- or two -- for all here to celebrate his successful application. And judging by the size of the rock on the ring he has, I’m fairly certain he has the credits to pay for it.”

A resounding chorus of “huzzah!” went up throughout the crowd.

Jalb turned to leave, and Bulldog clapped Andrew on the back twice with a chuckle and followed Jalb out. As they left, other lounge patrons began making their way to the counter to order a fresh round of drinks.

“Well,” said Andrew as he closed the box and looked at Mighty, “there goes my next paycheck. Or three.” He could see Mighty trying to stifle a laugh on his face. “Please don’t.”

“Sorry,” said Mighty. “But it is funny. Have I ever told you I used to be a member of Rogue Squadron?”

Chapter 2

[CRS Vigilant Hangar -- 0830 hours]

The next morning saw a bustle of activity on the main hangar deck of the CRS Vigilant. Work crews scurried across the length of the deck, prepping and running diagnostics on the fighters and other spacecraft of the squadrons and flight crews. As Andrew sat in the cockpit of his B-wing, working with his flight crew to run diagnostic checks, he saw numerous spacecraft enter and exit the main entryway and land towards the rear of the hangar.

As he ran through the diagnostics with his flight crew, he couldn’t help but notice a lambda-class shuttle make its way through the blue mag field, its wings folded up to complete its landing procedure. He also took note of a lone Y-wing with squadron markings that he did not recognize making its way through the mag field about a minute later.

When the shuttle had landed, a group of pilots began to descend down the extended ramp. Some were human, while others were from alien species. The pilots wore different colored jumpsuits and were carrying duffle bags in one hand while holding their decorated pilot helmets in another. Each was eventually met by the waiting security personnel and the deck officer, then directed elsewhere.

The alien pilot of the Y-wing, however, had decided to cut across the deck with their duffle bag towards the Renegade Wing fighter craft, still in full Y-wing bombing regalia.

“Major,” called Reiya Velnax, the B-wing Flight Maintenance Chief, who was standing below the ladder that led up to the B-wing, “try the engine systems now. Warm-up only.”

Turning his attention back to his engine and control systems, he began to power up and ignite his engine systems. The readings on his screen indicated that all systems were normal with the warm-up.

“Looks good,” he called down to Velnax.

“That’s great!” she called back to him over all the noise. “Test your throttle slowly. We’ll monitor from here.”

“Roger that,” replied Andrew. He began to slowly increase the power to the engines, keeping an eye on the systems. As he increased the throttle slowly, his systems displayed that all systems were normal.

“Engines are good!” she called from below after about a minute. “Throttle down while we finish the final diagnostics.”

Reducing power to his throttle and engines, the craft continued to display that all systems were green. As the noise from the engines died down, he shut down the systems to his B-wing and climbed out of the cockpit and down the ladder to talk with the lead mechanic.

“All systems check out, sir,” she said as he finished tapping some buttons on the data pad he was holding. “Your B-wing is in good form, though we’ll want to look at doing maintenance on your S-foils in the next few weeks. Make sure they’re still aligned and in good condition.”

“Excellent news,” said Andrew. “Thanks for everything.”

“Enjoy your day, sir,” she replied as she and her team moved on to the next B-wing beside his. It was then that a voice on the flight deck intercom from the control tower announced the arrival of a new transport. This one, Andrew saw, was a standard ATR-6 Assault Transport, which was being directed to land where a team of droid mechanics were waiting.

“She’s a beauty, isn’t she?” asked a voice from behind him. He turned to see the Y-wing pilot, a hand rubbing against the frame of his B-wing cockpit module, as she moved towards him. She stopped and dropped her duffle bag on the ground next to her. Her flight suit was a grey-color that clashed with the cool and decorative colors on the ovular flight helmet, not to mention the heavily tinted helmet goggles that made it difficult to see her full face. Two blue lekku jutted out from the rear of the helmet.

“I dunno,” said Andrew, trying to suppress a smile, “she’s not as graceful as an X-wing, or as slick as an A-wing. But she gets the job done … for a pregnant bantha, that is. You, on the other hand, are beautiful as always.”

“I dunno,” replied the female pilot. “I feel goofy in this flight suit. It’s so…”

“Tacky?” he finished.

“Kriffing right it is!” she replied as she finally removed her helmet. Her head was mostly covered by a white protective padding that some pilots needed to wear, but was modified to accommodate her two lekku. It didn’t stop her beauty from shining through.

“If I didn’t know better, I’d say your eyes are more beautiful than the last time I saw you,” he said, his face turning slightly red. He saw her shift her balance and place her free hand on her hip.

“Really?” she said with a raised eyebrow. “I’ve been here less than five minutes and you’re already sweet talking me. Would the Lieutenant Colonel approve?”

“Can’t help it,” replied Andrew with a grin and a shrug.

“Nor,” she said as she stepped forward and grabbed him by the collar of his flight suit, “can you help this.”

Before he could say anything to deter her, he found himself being kissed by Dia “Summer” Tann in full sight of those around him.

“Glad to see you again … snugglebear,” she said lowly with a wicked grin as their lips parted and she pulled away. Andrew was certain that his face was yet again a hotter shade of red than before as their eyes met.

Suddenly, a voice came over the intercom of the flight deck for all to hear.

“Major Dobson,” came Jalb’s voice, “if you keep up that behaviour, the only thing you’ll be kissing for the next week are my boots as you polish and shine them!”

Laughter erupted from the work crews and other pilots nearby, and Andrew turned to see Jalb up in the control tower, holding a microphone in his hand. He thought he saw an evil grin across Jalb’s face, though from this far of a distance it was difficult to tell.

“He never fails to ruin a moment, doesn’t he?” asked Dia.

“And we,” said Andrew, turning back to face her, “can never seem to stay out of trouble long enough for him. I’ll tell you about his little prank in the lounge later. You,” he said, reaching for her duffle bag and handing it to her, “need to get to the deck officer to get settled.”

“Don’t worry about me,” she said with a wink, and turned to walk away. “One more thing,” she continued, looking over her right shoulder. “I expect some chocolates in my quarters by tonight. And not just any chocolates.”

“That could be a bit problematic,” he said.

“And it’s your problem to fix,” she called back as she continued walking away.

As he watched her walk off, he felt a hand clamp down on his right shoulder.

“In need of assistance, Major?” asked Captain “Gremlin” Gemilan.

Andrew turned to see the red-skinned, purple-haired Zeltron female pilot from Spectre Squadron standing next to him.

“Alright, Gremlin, how much did you hear?”

“Just enough to see that my services may be needed,” she said with that wicked grin of hers. “I can get you what you need … for the right price.”

With a resigned sigh, he began to make plans with her to get the chocolates he needed. It would only cost him part of another paycheck -- once he finished paying off his bar tab.

“This deal gets worse all the time,” he muttered as the two pilots walked towards the hangar exit.

***

“She’s quite the ship, isn’t she?” asked the yellow-skinned Mirilian pilot as the group of pilots were led down the hallway by security and a personnel officer.

The red-skinned female Togruta with rigid white-and-blue montrals glanced at him, the blue gem at the centre of her decorative cultural headpiece moving slightly.

“Uh,” she said shyly, meeting his eyes. “I guess so?”

“Well, an Em-Cee-Eighty-Bee is impressive compared to the standard Em-Cee-Seventy-Five I’m stationed on,” continued the Mirilian. As the group stopped, the Mirilian extended his hand. “Where are my manners? I’m Shiz Cir, Starburst Squadron. And you are?”

The Togruta cautiously eyed his hand, then him, then took his hand to shake it. Her hands were soft and warm to the touch.

“I’m Ri,” she said softly. “Ri Mellira. Star Squadron.”

“Ooh!” said Shiz, his eyes widening. “I’ve heard about your squadron. Weren’t you involved in operations at the--”

Just then, Shiz felt a hand wrap around his arm. He quickly turned to see a white-furred, four-eyed Talz pilot behind him

“Pipe down,” he said with an almost whispering voice, “I can’t hear the instructions.”

“Sorry,” Shiz replied as he refocused his attention on the task at hand.

“As you can see here,” said the personnel officer from the front of the group, “these will be your bunk quarters during your stay on the Vigilant. Due to the lack of spacing and shifting personnel rosters, some of you will be doubling-up. The quarters not designated to you belong to other members of the squadrons housed here. Pay attention as I read out the names and your bunk numbers. First up: First Lieutenant Miran Bellios….”

As the officer read through the names, the pilots began to filter into their assigned cabins. Shiz’s name was the last to be called. As it turned out, he was bunked with the Talz who had asked him to pipe down earlier.

“I call the lower bunk,” said the Talz, who had already occupied the lower-level bunk with his duffle bag and helmet, as Shiz entered. Shiz shrugged and tossed his duffle bag and helmet up onto the upper bunk, which seemed noticeably smaller in space than the lower one. “I’m Grinmigu Bek, by the way,” said the talz, sticking his arm out to shake Shiz’s. “But you can call me Grin. All my squadmates do. Makes it easier to communicate with when we’re flying.”

“Nice to meet you, Grin,” said Shiz as their handshake finished. “What squadron are you part of?”

“I’m stationed aboard the Frigate Windrunner. Home of Ice Squadron. And,” he said, patting his stomach, “the best spice and herb cooks this side of the galaxy.”

“What a coincidence!” said Shiz excitedly, his eyes widening. “I flew a convoy escort mission a few months back. We got ambushed by Imperial forces and had to call in backup, which happened to be Ice Squadron. Were you part of them then?”

“Sure was,” said Grin, standing up. At full height, he only slightly towered over Shiz. He gave Shiz a light punch in the shoulder before continuing. “Your convoy would have been toast had it not been for us.”

“Yeah,” said Shiz, gently rubbing his arm. “Thanks for that. You have some pretty impressive pilots.”

“Your squadron wasn’t too bad yourselves,” said Grin. “Though being outnumbered three-to-one doesn’t help.” Grin finally decided to remove the duffle bag from around his body and tossed it back onto the bunk. Shiz thought he heard glass bottles rattle inside of it. “So why did you apply to Rogue Squadron?”

Before he could reply, the personnel officer popped his head into the cabin. “Gentlemen,” he said, “we’ll be continuing with our tour of the ship, then a meeting in the briefing room. Make sure you’re ready.”

“Well,” said Grin as the two pilots made their way to the door. The other pilots who had arrived with them were grouping up again in the corridor while other pilots from the Vigilant’s squadrons were making a shift change. “There are lots of reasons. But that’s a story best told later over a good meal.”

[Briefing Room -- 0930 hours]

An hour later, Andrew and Dia were sitting next to each other in the main briefing room on the Vigilant. The new arrivals, who were also vying for a spot in Rogue Squadron, occupied the remaining seats around them, and were having conversations about their flying experiences or points of general interest. Andrew took note of those from other species: one was a female Togruta with a beautiful pattern of blue making their way down her montrals, not to mention her unique white face-markings. A second was a Mirilian male with a pattern of diamond shapes that formed a type of goatee on his chin, while a third was a male Talz.

The fourth and final one was another female Twi’lek with red skin, a green headband and wrappings running down her lekku. As he made eye contact with the new Twi’lek, she gave him a quick wink. Dia must have seen her do this, as at that moment Andrew felt her left boot connect with his right rather hard.

“Stop staring,” she growled lowly and gave him a quick pinch.

“Ow!” said Andrew as he flinched in surprise. “I wasn’t…” he began to protest before he was interrupted by Jalb, who had just entered the room with Thanatos.

“Good morning, everyone,” said Jalb crisply as he came to stand at the console in front of them. The room fell silent as Thanatos moved to the console that was used for briefing commands and began entering information into it. “First of all, I’d like to welcome you to the Vigilant, and thank you for applying to Rogue Squadron. I want you all to know that while I appreciate your interest, Rogue Squadron is not for the faint of heart. Rogues,” he said, placing his arms behind his back and moving his head to meet the eyes of every pilot present, “are the best of the best.

“For the next week you will act as if you are members of Rogue Squadron. You will,” he continued, beginning to pace from right to left, “eat like Rogues. You will sleep like Rogues. Think like Rogues. Train like Rogues. Work together like Rogues. You will be Rogues in all but name and immediate assignment. You will also live by the core ideals of Rogue Squadron. You will demonstrate leadership by example; be giving of your time and experience to each other whenever possible; and be a gracious victor and compassionate warrior while being ruthless when required. There is no room for error in Rogue Squadron.

“My expectations are high, and this program will be rigorous. I expect you to give your best every waking moment whether you are in or outside of the training exercises, as well as the live exercises -- should you make it that far. I also,” he said, stopping in front of Andrew and Dia, giving them a steely gaze, “expect you to maintain a professional demeanor -- at all times.”

Turning towards Thanatos, he nodded, and stepped aside as the lights dimmed and a holographic image appeared in front of them.

“As you can see here,” continued Jalb, “your first series of exercises today will be training exercises in the simulation pods. Some exercises will be familiar to you, while others may be modified or new altogether.”

Andrew read the names of the missions on the holo display. Some were indeed familiar, while others were vague or new altogether. He didn’t mistake the name of the final one, however: it was the Dargon mission, one of the toughest missions the New Republic had on file. He and Dia had flown it multiple times as members of Blue Squadron, and while he knew the mission by heart, it was a mission that could be easily lost with even the slightest of errors.

“From there,” continued Jalb as the image changed again, “you will participate in physically demanding ship-wide exercises. Meals will be provided in the Mess Hall at twelve- and eighteen-hundred hours, after which you will be back in the simulators for more flight exercises until twenty-one hundred hours. Are there any questions?”

A young female pilot with milk-chocolate skin and black hair tied into a bun raised her hand. “Will we have time to get to know one another, sir?”

“No,” replied Jalb, “not immediately, at least. Remember, you are Rogues. Your bonds are made through the time you spend together with each other, not getting soft over drinks in the Lounge -- which, I should add, is also off-limits for the duration of the week.”

A series of groans came from several of the pilots around Andrew, but were quickly hushed as Thanatos gave a distinct cough to let Jalb finish as the holographic display melted away and the lights returned.

“If there are no other questions, I will meet you in the simulation room in ten minutes. Dismissed.”

As the pilots began to get up and file out of the room, the red-skinned Twi’lek made her way towards them and leaned against the back of his chair.

“Well hello, handsome,” she said with a slow and friendly drawl, and began to run a hand through his hair. “What brings someone like you here?”

Before he could respond, he saw a very perturbed Dia scrunch her face in anger and physically remove the woman’s hand from his hair.

“He’s already spoken for,” she said tersely. “Shouldn’t you be heading out with the others?”

“My, my, what a feisty friend you have here,” said the red-skinned twi’lek as she gave an amused smile. “I like feisty. Are you sure she’s the right one for you?”

“Captain Tann is,” said Andrew as he stood up and turned around. “And as the Lieutenant Colonel said, I’d prefer to keep things professional for the next week, Miss…?”

“Lyn Batoon,” she said, leaning forward and placing both arms on the back of his chair. “I can appreciate your professionalism, but I like to live life to the fullest. And I do mean the fullest. I have, shall we say, a lot of experience to make life enjoyable, and I enjoy many … sensual activities.”

Dia must have known where she was taking the conversation, as she gave Lyn a cold stare. “No thank you,” she said, standing up and moving next to Andrew. “We’re not interested.”

“Your loss,” said Lyn, standing up and making her way to the exit. “Though I hope you reconsider,” she said, looking over her left shoulder. “Especially you, Captain Tann.”

As Lyn exited the room, Dia turned to Andrew and gave an audible huff.

“I did nothing, I swear,” he said, holding his hands up and looking at her.

“I know. But the nerve of her….”

“Yes, I know,” he said, gently taking her by the arm and leading her towards the exit. “We can deal with this later. For now, let’s get to the training pods before Jalb has our heads.”

***

Taking a few quick steps down the corridor, Shiz matched his pace with that of Ri.

“So, Ri,” he said, turning to her. He noticed she gave a little jump as if he had startled her. “About earlier -- you said you’re part of Star Squadron?”

“Y-yes,” she replied, partly avoiding looking at him.

“Your squadron was involved in the Bazon Nebula conflict. That must have been so cool!”

Ri was silent for a few seconds before glancing at him again. “Cool?” she asked. “I guess so….”

Shiz continued excitedly with the conversation. “Yeah! I’ve read that the nebula consists of several different types of gases, not to mention pods of Purrgill, energy storms, and an asteroid belt near some of the moons of one of the gas giants. I bet it would make for some wonderfully exciting races if one could plot the right course. What did you enjoy most about it when you were there?”

Rather than reply, Ri gave him a hurt look and increased her walking pace so that she just moved faster than him. She moved up beside the chocolate-skinned female, who glanced back and gave Shiz what he thought was a dirty look.

“Was it something I said?” Shiz said to himself as he stopped, puzzled. He felt someone wrap an arm around his left arm and begin to lead him forward.

“Tell me something, sugar,” said the red-skinned Twi’lek as she gently pulled him along, “what else do you know about this Bazon Nebula conflict?”

“Well, it lasted for several weeks,” said Shiz. “A few cruisers and starfighter squadrons faced off against two Star Destroyers and their support ships, eventually defeating them.”

“Which,” the red-skinned Twi’lek interrupted, “would seem like a good thing for a group of Rebels. Outnumbered and outgunned, they defeat the superior Imperial forces using their wit and bravery -- not to mention surviving hazardous conditions in space.”

“It’d be a starfighter pilot’s dream, wouldn’t it? Racing in at full throttle, cutting turns and drifting around asteroids, using the nebula to hide….”

“That might be the dream of a hotshot or pro-racer type of pilot, yes,” she continued. “But what about the downside to it all?”

Shiz stared at her for a moment. “What do you mean?” he asked.

“Think about it, sugar,” she said, giving him a flat look. “If she belonged to a particular squadron and made a name for herself, that’s one thing. But how many of her comrades survived?”

Shiz fell silent for a moment to take in what was being explained to him. “Oh,” he said, finally realizing his mistake. “I didn’t think about it that way. I should probably apologize, shouldn’t I?”

“Not everyone does, sugar,” she said. He was about to move ahead when she squeezed his arm a bit more firmly. “And I’d wait until the time is right to apologize if I were you. For now, let’s see what the Lieutenant Colonel has in store for us.”

***

“Your first exercise,” said Jalb over the intercom as the simulator pod hatch hissed shut around Andrew, “will be to engage in a team exercise. The ten of you will be randomly paired with another team member. Your objective will be to engage in a dogfight against the other team members. There will be five teams: Red, Green, Blue, Gold, and Yellow. The team with the highest score will win, though be advised: any death incurred by you or your wingman will result in twice as many points being deducted. Therefore, teamwork is crucial. I should add that if you do not lose any lives individually, bonus points will be awarded. You may begin.”

As the simulation sprung to life around him, Andrew found himself staring out the simulated cockpit of an X-wing. Quickly checking his scope and targeting computer, the other teams were two clicks away from one another and rapidly closing. As he increased his throttle and modulated his energy systems, he called out to whomever was his other teammate.

“Name’s Grixx,” came a gruff reply over the comm as he moved his X-wing to pair off with Andrew. “You familiar with a Beta-Gamma-Delta maneuver?” he asked.

“I’m not,” said Andrew as he targeted the closest X-wing to him. His computer screen read Blue Two.

“Follow my lead, then,” said Grixx as his X-wing shot forward. “And don’t --”

Suddenly his X-wing exploded into a shower of sparks and fire. He had somehow been shot down.

“Die,” finished Grixx.

As Andrew’s second X-wing came into view at the re-entry point, he remodulated his energy systems and began to close the distance between himself and Grixx. Ahead of him the pairs of X-wings were engaged in a furious furball, evading and shooting at one another. Occasionally one of them would explode from laser fire or a warhead. He noted that those in the Green group had proton torpedoes, while Yellow had concussion missiles. He had, of course, nothing in his arsenal, nor did it seem did Grixx or some of the others. He was able to shoot down two damaged X-wings on his way towards Grixx before he noticed a message appear across his screen.

Don’t fly straight it read. As he looked back up, he saw two proton torpedoes slam into his front viewport as they approached from the right.

“Dammit!” he cursed in frustration. Not only had he been distracted, he had not been able to support his wingman either and had his score reduced once more.

“You won’t make a Rogue with that type of ability or flying style,” said Grixx as Andrew’s final X-wing came into view at the entry point. “Change your style, or you die. Meet me at point seven-three. I’ll bring them to you.”

Andrew did just that, and took extra care to use his visual scanning. He almost had a Red group member sneak in behind him, but was able to see him -- or her -- at the last second. He inverted his X-wing and broke right and away. Grixx was able to easily dispatch this member from Red, but the maneuver had thrown Andrew off balance and it took him an extra moment to find Grixx again, who was now under fire.

“Get these two off me,” Grixx growled into his comm. Andrew saw the two X-wings from Green tailing Grixx, pouring scarlet laser bolts towards him. He was able to avoid some of the fire, but other shots easily landed their mark on his rear shields.

“I’ll be right there,” he said, redirecting his shields and weapon systems. As he began to fire at the two X-wings, one of them broke away while the second came to a near stop rather quickly, then zipped towards him by using a drift. Not anticipating this, Andrew shot past the X-wing -- and was immediately destroyed by a pair of proton torpedoes. He sank back in his seat as the lights turned red in the simulation pod.

“I expect better from you, Major,” came Jalb’s voice sharply over his communicator. “I know you can do better.”

When the match had ended, the scoreboard flashed onto his display screen. His team had scored third overall, with Grixx being the only one not shot down even once. Meanwhile, his own deaths had taken away from any chance of obtaining a higher score. When it came down to the individual pilot breakdowns, Andrew was near the bottom of the list, while Grixx and Lyn were first and second respectively. Dia was third.

He was annoyed.

Not because he hadn’t finished first. He was annoyed that he had made rookie mistakes and not performed better.

“Your next challenge,” said Jalb as a briefing display screen came into view, “will be to work in teams of four. Two of you will be randomly paired together again, and will also have two artificial intelligence wingmen to command. Your objective will be to take out the enemy minefield protecting the opposing teams’ five cargo containers. Same rules apply as the last time. You may begin.”

As the simulator came to life in front of him, he could see the distant shapes of mines and cargo containers in the distance and around him.

“Hello there, sugar,” came Lyn’s voice over the comm.

“Lyn?” he asked.

“Let’s see if you can do better this round, handsome. Follow my lead.”

Before he could respond, she shot forward and raced towards the nearest set of mines and containers. This time he lasted longer than his first attempt, but it wasn’t long before he was shot down by one of the opposing players.

You died. Read the message across his screen in blazing red letters. This must have been a new addition to taunt him after each round.

He was able to improve slightly as the afternoon training went on, but he couldn’t help but be frustrated by his lack of significant progress overall.

One mission had them working in pairs to take out select freighters in an Imperial convoy. Another had them inspecting freighters that would randomly fire deadly warheads as soon as you targeted them. A third had them doing recon in an asteroid field with laser and mine turrets hidden throughout. Each and every time, no matter how hard he tried, the words You died flashed across his screen. By the end of the seventh mission, he was exasperated to the point that he let out a curse and began slamming his fists against the side of the simulation pod.

“Careful, Major,” came Jalb;s voice over the comm. “That equipment is very expensive. Wouldn’t want your pay to be cut, would you?” he asked cheerily.

“No,” replied Andrew quietly after he gave a sigh.

“That’s what I thought. You might enjoy this next one,” said Jalb as a new mission briefing sprung up on his screen. It was the Defend the Liberty mission, a Renegade Wing classic. “Alright, pilots,” continued Jalb. “This next one will test your ability to work together as a cohesive unit. Your task will be to defend the CRS Liberty, one of the finest ships in the Alliance before the Battle of Endor, may she rest in peace. Some of the parameters have been modified, but the core of the mission remains the same. Read the briefing; we’ll begin shortly.”

As Andrew read through the briefing information and stared at the icons on his screen, he let out a cry of exasperation. “Are you kidding me?!” The core mission was the same, but instead of X-wings and A-wings, Rogue Squadron had been reduced to flying Z-95s with one life only and no warheads.

As expected, the mission was a disaster. Despite their early success against the fighters, they hadn’t been able to destroy the Interdictor, and most had perished during their attack runs. Leaning back in his seat and placing a hand over his face, he let out a sigh of frustration.

“Final mission for this session,” said Jalb as he keyed it up to the simulation pods. Rescue from Prison Ship Dargon read the name on the screen.

Finally, Andrew thought as he read through the briefing notes. Everything was exactly as it should have been. No changes. No surprises -- that he knew of. Just the regular, damning mission that he had always known.

Except that when he and the others flew it, it really wasn’t. The TIE Advanced and Gunboats tore through the Alliance starfighters like a hot knife through butter. It was clear that they weren’t up against any pre-programmed AI. They were flying against incredibly experienced pilots. While he and Dia had managed to fire a few torpedoes at the Dargon, their attack was not enough to let them disable the Dreadnaught.

When the simulator pod hissed open, the light from the room partially blinded him until his eyes were able to focus again. As he and the other applicants exited their pods, he could see a handful of members from Rogue Squadron exiting a row of pods against the far wall, laughing and hooting at them.

“What you’ve just experienced,” said Jalb over the laughter at them, “is what it is like to be up against real Rogues. I hope you all can give a better show next time.”

Chapter 3

“What in the seven kriffing hells was that?” asked Nezrine , a thirty-something female pilot with short black hair cut at the nape of her neck, as she sat down with her tray of food.

“Unlike any training program I’ve ever been part of,” said Miran Bellios as he plunked himself down next to her. “Definitely not something I’d expect of a training program for Rogue Squadron.”

“You boys and girls just don’t know how to have any fun,” mused Lyn as she poked at the grey mush on her tray. “Don’t you see that they were just playing with us?”

“How so?” asked Nezrine through a mouthful of food.

“Think about it,” said Lyn slowly. “Pair us off so that we don’t really get to know one another, or our flying styles. Vary the missions so that we don’t get accustomed to them. Then increase the difficulty until we get so frustrated that we can’t focus.”

A few of the pilots nodded in agreement with what Lyn had stated.

“What I don’t understand,” said Grixx as he sat down heavily with his tray, “was how these kriffing two survived the Battle of Endor with their skills.” He used his fork to point at both Andrew and Dia from across the table. “Your skills are awful. How the hell are you alive?”

Andrew kept one eye on the forty-something pilot with a square jaw and close-cut grey hair, while with the other he could see Dia’s hands clenching her utensils in anger.

“What exactly are you implying?” she asked coldly.

“Based on what I’ve seen from a lot of you -- especially you two -- you aren’t exactly Rogue material. As far as I’m concerned, you’re undisciplined. You want to succeed, do exactly what I kriffing tell you from here on out.” With that, he stabbed one of the pieces of fruit on his tray and began to chew it angrily.

“Undisciplined,” spat Dia. “You’re one to talk. You won’t even follow suggestions or take orders from others. It’s either your way or the hyperlane way, isn’t it?”

Grixx swallowed his piece of fruit and pointed his fork at Dia.

“You aren’t one to lecture me, princess,” he said. “You wouldn’t last a minute with real pilots like my Dynamo Squadron boys and girls back on the Ambition.”

“Princess!” Dia spat, her eyes narrowing as she slammed a fist on the table. “I’ll have you know that Major Dobson and I, along with the rest of our squadron, took down multiple waves of fighters and two Star Destroyers at Endor.”

“Sod off,” said Grixx as he stood up, palms flat against the table. He leaned across the table and pointed a finger straight at Dia’s face. “I know all about the history of Blue Squadron. Nothing but a bunch of washed up, good for nothing--”

“Good for nothing!” said Dia as she stood up, her voice rising. “I’ll be damned if you refer to my fallen comrades that way.”

“Enough!” barked Andrew as he slammed a palm down on the table. A number of other personnel at other tables fell silent as they waited to see what would happen next. “Grixx, sit down and eat your meal. Dia, cool your jets--”

“But I --”

“Not one more word,” he said sharply, meeting her eyes. He watched as she took a final look at Grixx, then at him, and sat down without another word.

“And who says you call the shots?” Grixx said, eying him closely.

“Did someone put you in charge of the training program?” asked Dobson.

“No,” said Grixx after a moment.

“Then eat your kriffing meal and don’t antagonize another member of this group, or I’ll report you to Lieutenant Colonel Reynolds myself.”

He watched as Grixx begrudgingly backed down and continued to eat his meal in silence. As Andrew quickly eyed the other Rogue Squadron applicants around him, he could see that Lyn was highly amused at the display of power at the table. No one else said a word, and picked away at their meals.

Just as Andrew was able to finally take a bite out of his, he heard someone yell “Lieutenant Colonel in the Mess Hall, atten-hun!” Everyone present snapped to attention and stood up, turning to face towards where the voice had come from. There, at the entryway to the Mess Hall, stood Jalb.

“Rogue recruits, you are to report to the simulation room immediately! Everyone else, as you were.”

“But I thought we wouldn't report back until 1300 hours?” asked Nezrine from her seat.

“Plans change, First Lieutenant. Now hustle!”

As the bulk of the crew sat back down to finish their meals, Andrew stared at his untouched meal and quickly stabbed something that looked like protein and stuffed it in his mouth, then took a quick gulp of caf. While the other applicants for Rogue Squadron began to make their way towards the exit, he heard Jalb bark an order again.

“Move, you scruffy-looking nerf herders! Or I’ll have you on cleaning duty until your mothers come for a visit!’

“He doesn’t seem happy with us,” said Ri quietly as she slid past Andrew and Dia.

“He never is,” muttered Dia as she got up and made her way to the exit with Andrew close behind.

***

His eyelids tired, and his feet feeling heavy, Andrew dragged his tired body through the corridor to where Dia had said her quarters were. Their second round of training sessions had gone slightly better, but it had been long. And grueling. And it was still evident that there were issues that needed to be worked out between the ten pilots. The small box of chocolates in his hand, which he had retrieved from Gremlin after the meal in the Mess Hall, he made his way down to her cabin. When he arrived, he pressed the button to let her know he was outside. When the door whooshed open, he was met with the imposing figure of Lieutenant Colonel Reynolds.

“What the--” he began, his eyes widening in surprise.

“Chocolates,” said Jalb enthusiastically as he stepped forward and gently plucked the box out of Andrew’s hands. “That’s very kind of you, Major. I hope you know, however, that this will not garner any favors with me. Enjoy your evening,” he said before pointing a finger at Andrew’s nose, “responsibly and professionally, of course.” And with that, he brushed past Andrew and headed down the hallway.

Poking his head in the doorway, he saw Dia sitting on the stool adjacent to her bunk. Surprisingly, she was the only pilot assigned to the room.

“Permission to enter and behave responsibly?” he asked tiredly.

“Granted,” she said as she peeled off one of her boots. Then, with an equally tired look, she asked the obvious question. “He took my chocolates, didn’t he?”

“Yeah,” said Andrew as he entered the room. “He did. What was he even doing here?”

“Just giving a quick debrief after today, and welcoming me back I think. Everything is kind of a blur right now. Also, lock the door. I don’t want him barging in on us again.”

As the door closed behind him, Andrew pressed a button to engage the locking mechanism. It would take an officer’s command code to open it, but he hoped no officers were nearby to do so. Taking two steps, he turned and sat down on the padded cushing of her bunk.

“Uhn,” she muttered, peeling off her second boot. “To hell with shining them. I’m beat. Move over.”

“You’re not the only one,” he said as he wriggled slightly to the right while she plopped herself down next to him. Turning to look at her, they gave each other a weak smile. “Aren’t you going to remove your flight suit?” he asked.

“I’ll do it later,” she replied with an exhausted sigh.

“Sorry for snapping at you in the Mess Hall,” he said.

“No,” she said as she laid her head against his shoulder. “I deserved it. I let my temper get the best of me -- again.”

“Have you been seeing someone about that?” he asked, taking her right hand in his left and gently squeezing it.

“Yeah,” she said with a yawn. “I’ve been getting better about keeping my emotions in check. Well, except for earlier.”

“That’s a good thing,” he said, “and I’m glad you’re seeking help. Now if only I can get other women to stop hitting on me, we’d be golden.”

“That,” she said with a tired chuckle, “along with Jalb not getting after us would be a godsend.”

They both turned to look at each other, and stared in silence as they enjoyed each other’s company.

“So what was the best part of today?” he asked quietly.

“Getting to torpedo you into oblivion -- twice,” she replied with a grin.

“Oh-ho, that was you?! I should have known.”

“I told you not to fly straight,” she said, a sly smirk spreading across her face, “but you didn’t listen, did you?”

“No,” he said, letting out a chuckle, “I guess I didn’t. Rookie mistake.”

“And one that you shouldn’t make when you’re actually flying, your nerfherder,” she said, and gently punched his shoulder with her free arm. “So, what was the best part of your day?”

“You,” he said after a moment. “Always you.”

She reached with her free hand and pulled his head closer to hers. As their lips met, he could feel her body pressing against his. As they shared several intimate kisses, he in that moment wanted her. Wanted whom he was not able to have by his side for weeks or months at a time, to escape even briefly from this devastating war that they were engaged in.

But he knew that he could not -- should not -- give in to his desires. As her leg began to slide across his lap, he stopped her, holding her by the waist.

“As much as I want to,” he said as their lips broke apart, “I can’t. We can’t. Not while we’re in training.”

“I know,” she said with a sigh. “Damn shame that we used up all our shore leave time.”

“Don’t remind me,” he said. “And I’m out of day passes at the moment. I have to go,” he said, “or people will get suspicious.”

“I know,” she said, slipping him one final kiss before sliding to sit next to him. “We need to be on our best behaviour.”

“I’ll see you tomorrow,” he said as he squeezed her hand one final time. As he stepped toward the door and undid the lock command, he felt her fingers pinch his bottom playfully.

“Ow!” he exclaimed, turning to look at her in surprise.

“Rule number two,” she said with a giggle, “always watch your six.”

Rubbing his bottom, he shook his head and gave her a smile, then left.

By the time he reached his cabin, he was ready to fall asleep immediately on the bunk. As he rounded the corner, he saw Jalb standing next to the entryway to his cabin. In his hands were the box of chocolates, apparently almost half eaten.

“I have to say, Major,” he said, finishing off the chocolate he was working on, “these are very good. Not sure where you got them, but I don’t think I’ve had any quite like these before.”

Andrew stared in disbelief at the madman in front of him. Jalb closed the lid on the box and placed it underneath one of his arms.

“Now,” he said, staring at Andrew with a steely gaze. “Let’s talk about your progress today.”

***

[Lieutenant Colonel’s Office - 2200 hours]

“So,” said Thanatos as he sat from across the desk in Jalb’s office that evening, “how do you think today went?”

“Terrible, as expected,” said Jalb as he set down the data pad on his desk. “I mean, look at these numbers. Some of them are atrocious. And I’m particularly disappointed with Major Dobson’s scores.”

“That’s fair,” said Thanatos, leaning back in his chair. “A bit surprising, too. But I’m sure that they’ll be able to iron things out in no time.”

“They’d better,” said Jalb as someone wrapped at the door to his office. “If we’re going to beat Tol Barand, we need the best team.”

A moment later the door opened and Major Mogazz Murg stood in the doorway.

“Gentlemen,” he said. “I hope I’m not interrupting.”

“Not at all, Major,” said Jalb, standing up and motioning towards an empty chair next to Thanatos. “Please, have a seat.”

“Thank you, Lieutenant Colonel. There are a number of matters that we need to discuss -- especially those concerning Rogue Squadron.”

Chapter 4

He awoke to a klaxon blaring in his quarters. Blurry-eyed and over-tired despite having a few hours of rest, Andrew jolted up in his bed and fumbled for his chronometer. As he hit the ‘off’ button, the klaxon continued to wail. Rubbing his eyes, he checked the time; it was shortly after three in the morning. He had set his alarm for six.

What in the kriffing hell is this? he thought as he rubbed his eyes.

“Rise and shine, Major,” said Thanatos as the door slid open and the lights turned on. “You have five minutes to get into your sweats and get your sorry butt down to the hangar for morning exercises.”

All Andrew managed to get out was a “Wha--?” before Thanatos left to harass the next set of recruits. Stumbling out of his bunk, he quickly changed into a fresh set of undergarments and training clothing, then bolted for the hangar. If he was quick, he could make it before the five minutes were up.

When he entered the hangar, the other applicants were trickling in. They all lined up along where Thanatos and First Lieutenant Josh “Hellcat” Kinney were waiting. Everyone except Grixx looked exhausted and sleep deprived, while Grixx maintained a stoned-faced scowl.

“Did he even sleep?” whispered Dia as she stood next to Andrew in her navy-blue sweatpants and sweatshirt.

“Hush,” Andrew mumbled, then added, “and how are you not roasting in that sweatshirt?” Before she could reply, Thanatos began addressing the group.

“Good morning,” he said amusedly as he paced up and down the line of cadets. “The Lieutenant Colonel has put me in charge of the training regime today. And what a day it will be! Your first task will be to build up endurance. Squad A,” he said, motioning to the first five pilots in line, “will be with me, Squad B will be with Hellcat. We’ll be running laps around the ship. We’ll end by meeting at the weight room. Try to keep up, and don’t get lost. Get moving!”

And with that, they were off.

They did one lap around the ship. Then another. And another. It took them twenty minutes or more to do each lap, having to navigate through crowded hallways and tight corridors depending on the section they were in. Some crew members cheered them on, while others hooted or cat-called at them. It was, to say the least, embarrassing.

“I don’t … think ...I can … go on,” said Dia through huffs. Her face had begun to turn red by the third circuit, and her pace had slowed down. “Legs … too much pain….”

“Keep going,” panted Andrew, sweat dripping down his face, “just another minute.”

As they reached the weight room, they were met by a handful of the other participants of Squad A and B, some of whom were bent over and huffing for air.

“Alright, stretch it out,” said Hellcat as Dia leaned against Andrew for support and began taking gasping breaths. The pilots then began performing stretches to alleviate the aches and pains in their legs.

“Next,” said Thanatos as they were in the middle of stretching, “will be some physical activities. Each of you will be assigned a station to test your endurance with weights.

And they did just that for the next hour.

After that was an hour-long session in the simulator room followed by a dash to the Mess Hall.

“Eat up, nerfherders,” said Hellcat as they got in line with their trays. A few minutes had passed before they were all served and had a chance to sit down. Each began devouring the food in front of them.

“I am so hungry,” said Grin.

“Then shut up and eat,” said Nezrine through a mouthful of food.

Andrew was simultaneously working his way through the scrambled eggs and grey mush when Jalb walked into the room.

“Lieutenant Colonel in the Mess Hall,” barked Hellcat. “Atten-hun!”

The pilots snapped to attention from where they were.

“Good morning, pilots,” said Jalb, holding a cup of steaming caf. He took a sip from his mug and smacked his lips in pleasure, clearly enjoying what must have been a quality caf. “Did you have a good warm-up?” he asked.

“Warm-up?” asked Lyn, “Sugar, that ain’t a warm-up.”

Andrew and Dia’s eyes went wide as soon as they heard the word ‘sugar’. They both turned their heads slightly enough to look at Jalb, then back to her, then back to Jalb. He was clearly not amused.

“‘Sugar?’” he said slowly. “Captain Batoon, nobody refers to me that way. For that, we’ll be starting the real workout early. Thanatos, if you will?”

“Move out, you scruffy nerfherders,” bellowed Thanatos. “Laps around the ship, double-time! Let’s go, let’s go!”

Several pilots let out groans and gave Lyn dirty looks as they passed her. But this didn’t seem to bother her one bit as they formed up and began jogging out of the room. Andrew and Dia knew a bit better, and disposed of their food trays first before heading out to join them.

By the time noon rolled around, the group looked exhausted. It was drill after drill, briefing after briefing, flight exercise after flight exercise. For every successful mission they flew, there were three that they failed in some form or another.

“I don’t know how much more I can take,” said Dia as she plunked herself down at the table. “Not even General Syndulla worked us this hard. And how can you even eat that dribble?”

“Just eat,” said Andrew, spooning a mound of grey mush from his tray into his mouth. “He might be back any minute.”

“No,” she said wearily, placing her head against his shoulder. “You do it for me.”

“Oh no,” he said, gently nudging her away. “No way am I masticating your own food. Eat up. You need it.”

***

The rest of the day was more or less the same. There were further drills and flying exercises throughout the afternoon. He and the others had been able to perform better during the simulations, but only marginally so. It didn’t help that his body ached and his eyes wanted to permanently shut themselves so he could sleep the rest of the day. The training seemed to stop at dinner hour.

“I think I’m done for today,” said Dia as she slumped against him in her quarters shortly after 1900 hours.

“Me too,” he said, gently rubbing one of her hands. “Though I have to say, you do look hot in those sweats.”

She gave a small laugh and closed her eyes. “Thanks.”

“Okay, I have to go,” he said, trying to get up. But she didn’t move. Her breath was shallow as she had apparently fallen asleep. Gently moving himself up and holding her, he placed her comfortably on her bunk and covered her with a blanket. As he was about to leave, he heard her mumble “Thank you, snugglebear,” before drifting back to sleep.

When he returned to his own bunk, he set his alarm for three in the morning just in case, and immediately fell asleep when his head hit the pillow.

***

That evening, both Shiz and Grin wearily laid in their bunks, the gentle hum of the ship’s systems providing an oddly soothing effect. Both their muscles ached from the rigorous day of exercises, and Shiz could hear the steady breathing of Grin below him. He hadn’t had a chance to speak with Ri since their last conversation. It took a few minutes for Shiz to work up the courage to ask his newfound friend the question that had been eating away at him all day.

“Hey Grin?” he asked.

“Yeah?” Grin replied after a few seconds.

“What’s the best way to apologize to a girl?”

Shiz heard Grin shift in his bunk, then saw a leathery hand grip the edge of his bunk as Grin pulled himself up to look at Shiz.

“You’re joking, right?” Grin asked, his eyes shifting to give off a look of wonderment.

“Well,” said Shiz, “not … really.”

“Shiz,” Grin asked, “have you ever had a girlfriend? Any sisters or female cousins?”

“No,” said Shiz, a bit embarrassed. “I was an only child, and we only ever saw my extended family every couple of years. My parents sent me to an all-male private boarding school. I mean, I’ve interacted with all different sorts of people… should I give flowers? Or a gift?”

“Man, you are overthinking this,” Grin said, crossing both arms and placing them on the edge of the bunk. “Just apologize like you would to anyone else.”

The room was silent for another minute until Grin spoke again.

“Is this about Ri?”

Shiz blinked at Grin for a few seconds before saying, “Yes.”

“Dude,” said Grin, “just be yourself and give a simple apology. You don’t need flowers or gifts unless it is for something important.”

“Oh. Okay.”

“Now, let’s get some rest. Who knows what tomorrow will bring.”

As Grin bent back down to return to his bunk, Shiz was kept awake by the thoughts running through his mind. Then, a thought occurred to him, and he knew exactly what he needed to do. With his mind more at ease, he drifted off to sleep listening to the steady snoring pattern that Grin was whistling in his bunk below.

***

Lyn Batoon trudged down the hallway towards her cabin, her boots thumping across the floor plating. Several pilots from Renegade Wing passed her as they were scheduled for flight duty at this hour. She was exhausted, and couldn’t wait to hit her bunk.

As she entered the room, she was met with a sweet aroma. Music gently rippled throughout the room, adding a soothing feeling to the room. Nirobi sat on her own bunk in her sweats, cross-legged and in perfect posture, hands gently resting on her knees. On the nightstand beside her, a small device sent a wafting stream of white mist into the air. Watching her was like watching a statue at a small temple.

“Greetings,” said Nirobi quietly without opening her eyes.

“Don’t mean to ruin your parade,” said Lyn as she plopped down face-first onto her padded bunk. “But I know some of us want to get to bed sooner rather than later.”

Nirobi continued her perfect pose. “I’m almost done,” she said just audibly enough for Lyn to hear her.

Lyn closed her eyes and took several breaths, the music and smell covering blanketing her. It was soothing, though she would not have admitted it at that moment.

“How does all this help you again?” Lyn asked after a few minutes, opening her eyes. Nirobi remained still, but opened an eye to look at Lyn.

“A healthy body,” she said quietly, “can lead to a healthy soul. It is important to balance oneself after a day of chaos. Mind. Body. Spirit. All are one, and need to be respected.”

Lyn gave a small chuckle and closed her eyes again.

“Nothing against you, sugar,” Lyn said with a yawn. “But if I want to unwind after a hard day, a sensual evening with one -- or more -- beings is the way to go.”

She heard Nirobi shift off the bunk. The music stopped, as did the gentle hum of the machine spewing the flowery scenes.

“Physical pleasures have their benefits,” Nirobi said quietly, “but can often lead to conflict. Strife. Jealousy. Anger. Shame. A soul needs not these. Balance and peace help one rejuvenate. Be connected with the Force.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” said Lyn with a yawn as she closed her eyes once more. She heard Nirobi kneel on the floor next to her own bunk, and begin a mantra.

Lyn rolled over in her bunk as Nirobi turned the lights off.

Religious zealot she thought to herself as the weight of her eyelids finally took hold, and she drifted off to get what sleep she could.

Chapter 5

As to be expected, the klaxon began wailing just after three, though Andrew had been awake a few minutes before that. Although he still wanted to go back to sleep, he was more alert this time thanks to some caf pills he had stored away in one of his drawers.

“Ah, an early riser,” Jalb said from a few metres away as Andrew exited his room. “I like your ambition. Get to the simulator room, double-time.”

As Andrew and the others jogged quickly to the simulation room, they were met by Captain Roy “Lock” Callahan.

“Get in your pods,” he said, “your mission is waiting. You’ll be briefed shortly.”

As the hatch hissed shut around him once more, the holographic display winked to life. The mission was Defend the Liberty, with a twist. Six X-wings and four A-wings appeared on the roster slot, each with only one craft available instead of the option for multiple waves.

“The Liberty is under attack,” came Lock’s voice over the headset. “You get one craft with half a load of warheads. No reinforcements or reload options are available. Good luck.”

“There’s no kriffing way,” said Nezrine over the intercom, “that we’ll be able to win this with our loadout.”

“There’s always a way, sugar,” replied Lyn. “We just have to try.”

“Enough yapping,” growled Grixx as the simulation started. “Follow my lead and stay close.”

“Hey, you’re not the flight lead,” chirped Grin over the intercom.

“Doesn’t matter,” said Grixx firmly. “You either follow my lead, or you die.”

Andrew soon found himself in the cockpit of an A-wing. Checking his tactical readout, he could also see that Dia, Lyn, and Shiz were in his flight group. Everyone else was in X-wings.

“A-wings,” said Grixx, “stay on those fighters and bombers. X-wings, with me.”

“To hell with that,” said Miran. “You’re not the flight lead.”

“No one is, really,” piped up Ri with her quiet voice.

“Arguing won’t get us anywhere,” said Andrew as the simulation roared to life. He began to modulate his energy systems to charge his shields and lasers as the A-wings raced towards the oncoming fighters. “Rogue Eight, with me. We’ll go after the Bombers. Rogues Nine and Ten, get on those Interceptors.”

“Copy that,” said Shiz and Lyn as they paired off and headed towards the closest group of Interceptors.

“Lasers only,” said Andrew to his wingmen. “Save your concussion missiles for later when we really need them.”

As they engaged the Bombers and Interceptors, the X-wings continued their path towards the Interdictor Restrainer. They had nearly closed the gap and were within firing range when a pair of TIE Advanced shot out of hyperspace and immediately melted two of the X-wings into piles of slag.

“Karabast!” cursed Miran. “This isn’t part of the mission!”

“It isn’t,” said Grixx, “but anything can happen on a real mission. A-wings, break off and engage those Brights, now!”

As the A-wings finished chewing through the first wave of Bombers and Interceptors, Andrew couldn’t help but watch as the pair of TIE Advanced chewed through a third X-wing quickly before breaking off and renewing their attack. It was evident that the pilots of those two TIE Advanced were members of Rogue Squadron, though he couldn’t guess as to which ones. Just then, two messages flashed across his screen that a new wave of Bombers and Interceptors were launching.

“We don’t stand a chance if they destroy those other X-wings,” called Dia over her headset.

“I know,” said Andrew. “Lyn, Shiz, get on that new wave of Bombers, and any successive waves. Then go for the Interceptors. Dia, with me.”

“Copy, Rogue Seven,” she said into the comm. “What’s the plan?”

“Keep those Brights off balance. Fire a single warhead at Zeta One, I’ll take Zeta Two. Grixx, I need you and Miran to go after the TIE Advanced while we distract them.”

“No,” said Grixx, “we need to take down that Interdictor, now. Miran, with me. We’ll go after the left shield generator first.”

“If you do that,” warned Andrew, “you’re a prime target for those turbo lasers and Interceptors.”

“No time,” said Grixx as his and Miran’s X-wings weaved forward. “The ISD Bellicose has just entered the system. The VSD Jundland won’t be far behind.” A barrage of laser fire began lancing out towards the two remaining X-wings. As the TIE Advanced swooped down behind them, Andrew and Dia switched to concussion missiles and began targeting them. Before they could each get a solid lock, the TIE Advanced broke off and chose their separate flight paths, allowing a pair of Interceptors to close ranks on the X-wings. As they did so, the Alliance fighters received a radio notification that the Liberty was taking torpedo hits from the first wave of Bombers from the Bellicose.

“Sithspit,” cursed Andrew into his comm. “I’m on the Interceptors. Stay on your target,” he said to Dia as he switched back to lasers and began pouring scarlet bolts into the Interceptors in front of him. He was almost able to get the second Interceptor when a pair of quad lasers dropped his shields to 25%. One of the TIE Advanced had made him their target. As he broke right and dove away, he rebalanced his systems to compensate for the loss of shields and began jinking to avoid further damage.

“Rockets away!” called Grixx over the comm as the X-wings began their attack. As Andrew weaved his A-wing, trying to avoid the laser fire from the TIE Advanced, he quickly saw the left shield generator explode, while the second Interceptor took out Miran with a few laser shots.

“Idiot,” he heard Grixx growl as the pilot pulled a drifting maneuver and swung around to finish off the remaining Interceptor before continuing his attack. His X-wing then shot forward, miraculously avoiding the onslaught of turbolaser fire from the interdictor. As Grixx fired his remaining rockets into the right shield generator, followed by several bursts of quad lasers, it erupted into a plume of flame.

“Shields are down,” he called. “But I’m out of warheads.”

“Message from the Liberty,” came the automated voice over the comm. “It’s shields are heavily damaged.”

“We can’t keep going like this,” Andrew said, “everyone go full throttle and pull back to the Liberty and cover it.”

“What about you?” asked Dia, still trying to tackle her TIE Advanced.

“I’m going to do the only thing I can,” he said as his shields dropped and his hull icon turned yellow. The TIE Advanced had finally scored some more hits on him. “We can still win this if you all work together.” Lining his A-wing up with the bridge of the Interdictor, he redirected all power to his engines and shot straight towards it. He managed to quickly fire all four concussion missiles successfully to weaken the hull frame before his fighter crashed into it. As the Interdictor went up in flames, the words You died! flashed across his screen.

The cover to his pod hissed open, and he climbed out to join the others viewing the display screen in the room. It was broken into different segments to show the viewpoints of the other pilots.

They didn’t last much longer. By the time the shields had dropped on the Liberty, the Jundland had jumped into the system farther ahead, and had begun launching its own waves of TIE Bombers. It wasn’t long before the last fighter was destroyed and the Liberty went down in flames.

They had lasted longer than the initial trial on the first day, but not well enough to be successful.

“You’re nothing but a bunch of good-for-nothing idiots,” called Grixx as he was the last to exit his pod.

“Uh, excuse me, sugar,” drawled Lyn, “but I wouldn’t exactly call you leadership material based on what I’ve seen. All you care about is yourself.”

“You’re one to talk,” growled Grixx as he marched over to her. “All you care about is having a good time. Where were you when those other TIEs tried to take us out by the Liberty?”

“I,” she said slowly, locking eyes with him, “was doing what was expected of me. And doing it well enough. You all want to follow this moof-milker,” she said, eyeing the others who had been flying X-wings, “be my guest. But you’ll all get yourselves killed.”

“And like you didn’t,” piped up Nezrine.

Other arguments began to break out between the pilots. Some began to shout, while others pointed fingers. Dia rolled her eyes and shook her head in disbelief. Andrew watched in frustration as the pilots continued to argue. Never, in all his time as a pilot, had he borne witness to such behaviour from a group of experienced pilots.

“That’s enough,” he said finally, though no one appeared to hear him. “I said that’s enough!” he snapped, more audibly this time.

“Yes,” said Jalb as he stepped up to the group of pilots. “I agree with the Major. Enough is enough. I’ve never seen such a dysfunctional group in all my time flying. If you can’t work together, you don’t deserve to fly together. You’re dismissed.”

“Wait,” said Andrew as Jalb gave him a steely-eyed look. “Lieutenant Colonel, I’d like to ask for another chance.”

“I can’t say I see the value in that, Major,” replied Jalb. “What better do you think you can do?”

“I don’t know,” said Andrew, giving a shrug. “But I can tell you -- all of you -- as a former squadron leader, teamwork is the only way to win. Ever since we’ve started, we’ve been performing together. But we really haven’t been working together. I say we approach the Liberty mission again, but this time as a team.”

“Yeah,” cut in Grixx. “My team.”

“No,” said Andrew flatly. “As my team.”

“Fat chance,” said Grixx. “I’m not taking orders from a washed-out former squadron leader such as yourself.”

“Yes,” said Dia sternly as she spoke up, “you will. Because I am.”

Grixx gave a snort of disgust.

“The Commander and I are veterans of Endor, and other conflicts as well,” she said, moving to stand next to him. “There’s no way we could have survived those engagements without working together. How many of you have the same experience?”

Only one other pilot raised their hand. Then Grixx begrudgingly raised his.

“It’s like the Lieutenant Colonel said in the beginning,” piped up Grin. “Rogues do everything together. I don’t think the real Rogue Squadron wastes time with petty arguments. I’m in too.”

“As am I,” said Ri, moving forward from behind Lyn.

The rest of the pilots looked around at one another.

“Well that settles it,” said Lyn with a wink aimed at Andrew. “I’m in, too, sugar.”

“Count me in,” piped up Shiz.

It wasn’t long before the other pilots sided with those who had decided to support Andrew. Grixx was the only one left holding out.

“Fine,” he growled after several moments of silence. “If it’ll get me away from you faster, I’ll do it.”

“It’s settled then,” chimed in Jalb, amused at the newfound cooperation between the group. “I’ll reload the simulation. Get to your pods.”

***

As the pod hatch hissed shut once more, the briefing came into full view. This time, the pilots had been separated differently. Rogues One through Four were in A-wings, while Rogues Five through Ten were in X-wings. Andrew, Dia, Lyn, and Shiz made up the flight of A-wings, while Grixx and the rest were in the X-wings, with Grixx as Rogue Five.

“Okay boys and girls,” said Andrew as the briefing finished. A-wings will run interference. Rogue Four will be with me as we target the Dupes. Rogues Two and Three will target the Squints. Rogues Five through Eight will make attack runs on the Interdictor first while Nine and Ten target any new contacts.

“Rogue Five, take your team and target the shield generators first, then other subsystems as necessary. As soon as your rockets are empty, switch out with Nine and Ten so they can begin their runs.”

“What about the Liberty?” asked Lyn. “Won’t she be defenseless?”

“If the Bellicose jumps in before we’re done,” he said, the mission beginning before him, “the A-wings will race back to cover her. We’ll adjust the plan as we go. Sound good?”

A string of affirmations ran over the comm.

“Good.”

“Rogue Flight Two,” said Grixx as the A-wings raced past the X-wings, “lock S-foils in attack position, and set deflector shields to double strength. I want us protected well while we make our attack runs.”

The A-wings were again the first to engage the Imperial fighters. They made short work of the initial Bombers and Interceptors, and quickly engaged the follow-up waves as they launched. Just as the X-wings were nearing the Interdictor again, the TIE Advanced shot out of hyperspace from a different entry position. This time, however, there were three of them.

“Three TIE Advanced, mark oh-five-eight,” called Nirobi.

“I see them,” said Andrew as an Interceptor disintegrated from a hail of his laser fire. “Rogue Four, with me. We’ll assist Nine and Ten.”

“Copy, One,” said Shiz.

The X-wings were more prepared this time, and managed to survive the first pass from the new fighters. As the four starfighters did their best to keep the TIE Advanced off-balance, Grixx and his wingmen had managed to take out both of the shield generators.

“Their shields are down, and the hull is partially damaged,” cheered Ri as the X-wings came around for another pass.

“Rogue Nine, Rogue Ten, begin your attack run,” said Grixx. We’ll draw fire away from you.”

“Copy, Five,” said Grin.

“Alpha and Beta flights are down, but here comes the Bellicose,” said Dia as the Star Destroyed dropped out of hyperspace behind the Liberty.

“Rogue Two, Rogue Three, hustle back and take care of those Bombers,” said Andrew as he fired several successive shots at the TIE Advanced he was pursuing, reducing its shields.

“You don’t have to tell us twice, sugar,” said Lyn. “I’m right behind you, Two.”

As the two A-wings rocketed off to defend their ship, one of the X-wings scored a direct series of quad-laser hits on Zeta Two. It exploded into a ball of flames as the wreckage spun out of control.

“Splash one!” cried Miran.

“Make that two!” said Shiz a few seconds later as Zeta Three exploded from a concussion missile launched at close range.

“Alright, X-wings form up on me,” said Grixx as he swung wide of the Interdictor. “We’ll make a final attack on the Restrainer and finish it off. Set your deflectors to double-front, and lasers to maximum.”

As the X-wings began their attack run, a hail of scarlet laser fire pounding against the ship’s hull, Andrew and Shiz continued to distract Zeta One.

“This guy’s good,” said Shiz as he tried in vain to fire at the TIE Advanced. “I can’t get a lock.”

Andrew watched as the TIE Advanced weaved from left to right repeatedly, also performing some corkscrew maneuvers to avoid laser fire or a missile lock.

“We’ll have to meet him head-on,” said Andrew as he formed up behind Shiz. “I need you to fly straight. I’ll be right behind you, and you do exactly as I say. Attack pattern Iota-five.”

“Copy that, boss,” said Shiz.

Setting his deflector shields to double-front and charging his lasers to maximum, Andrew did his best to mask his approach in hopes that Zeta One would not see him. The TIE Advanced suddenly leveled off and drifted around to begin an attack run on Shiz. As the ship rapidly closed the gap between them, Andrew gave the next command.

“Now!” Andrew yelled. As Shiz pulled up and broke right, Andrew’s shields absorbed the initial volley of shots intended for Shiz. Squeezing the trigger, he sent out a rapid stream of laser fire at the TIE Advanced, hitting it squarely in the cockpit module. As the two fighters narrowly screamed past one another, the Advanced clearly surprised at the maneuver, Andrew gave his next set of orders. “Finish him, Four!”

Finishing his loop, Shiz locked on to the TIE Advanced and sent a missile plus several bursts of laser fire at it. As the fighter tried to turn away, it exploded into a shower of fire and sparks.

“Splash three!” hooted Shiz.

“The Restrainer is down!” called Grixx over the comm. “Now let’s get back to the Liberty.”

“Agreed, Rogue Five,” said Andrew, rebalancing his systems to recover from the attack. “Now, let’s form up and--”

His sentence was cut short as three new TIE Advanced entered the area to his left and immediately destroyed his craft with a hail of fire. Shiz was destroyed almost as quickly.

What the kriffing hell was that? thought Andrew as the hatch to his pod opened. He climbed out and made his way, along with Shiz, over to the viewing screen to watch the progress of the others. Dia and Lyn were making good progress in defending the Liberty, but they were confined to sticking close to it lest they fell prey to the TIEs launching from the Bellicose. Still, they were able to slow down the assault from the Bombers with the help of the Liberty’s missile and point-defense systems.

The X-wings, however, faced a far tougher challenge. They were caught in a furball with the new set of TIE Advanced, and couldn’t easily make their way back to the Liberty. As they exchanged fire and maneuvered around one another, the VSD Jundland entered the system and began launching its flight of Bombers.

“They don’t stand a chance,” said Shiz as Rogue Eight exploded into a ball of flame.

“No,” said Andrew. “They don’t.” He watched as Lyn’s A-wing broke off to engage the new flight of Bombers from the Jundland. As she did so, one of the TIE Advanced broke off to set an intercept course towards her. She might be able to destroy the first flight or two of Bombers from the Jundland, but Zeta Six would be able to easily pounce on her and potentially take her out. There would still be one-and-a-half squadrons of Bombers from the Jundland to take out, and they would easily make short work of the Liberty with their torpedoes.

As Rogue Nine exploded into a ball of fiery gas, Andrew watched as their fate was all but sealed. Grixx’s flight was able to take out the other TIE Advanced left with them, but not before Zeta Six had taken care of Lyn. While the remaining four fighters did their best to communicate, they were easily destroyed by the third successive wave of TIE Advanced that entered the system. With its hull at 50%, the Liberty was quickly destroyed by the remaining Bombers from the Jundland.

“What in the seven kriffing hells was that!” yelled Grixx as he was yet again the final pilot to exit his pod. He threw his helmet across the room in frustration, marching towards Ri. “I told you to break left and head back to the Liberty for cover. The Liberty had over a minute left before it would hyper out. Why didn’t you listen?! We could have won!”

“I’m sorry,” she said, taken aback and frightened at the hulking man making his way towards her, “but I lost maneuverability when Zeta Eight hit me. I-I couldn’t do anything!”

“Easy there, big guy,” said Lyn as she stepped in between the two, placing a firm hand on his chest. “These things happen. Why don’t you take five and cool off?”

His nostrils flaring, Grixx marched over, picked up his helmet and stormed out of the room, muttering curses to himself. The other pilots watched in awe at the display of anger that seemed uncharacteristic, even for him.

“Come on, sugar,” said Lyn, putting an arm around the togruta and leading her away from the group. Tears had begun to form in Ri’s eyes, and she made several sniffling sounds. “Let’s get you cleaned up.”

As the group watched them leave, their silence was broken by Jalb, Bulldog, and First Lieutenant Nick “Jasted” Finelli exiting their pods and walking over to them.

So that’s who was flying those TIE Advanced, Andrew thought to himself.

“A modestly better attempt, I think,” said Jalb, “but you still need improvement. We were taking it easy on you.”

The recruits looked at one another in shock and awe at this news.

“For now,” continued Jalb, “head to the Mess Hall for breakfast, then report to the hangar at oh-seven-hundred hours for training. And take some showers. You all kriffing stink of sweat.”

Chapter 6

“You know,” said Shiz as he sat down with his tray of food at the table, “we worked better on that mission than any time before. I’m almost sure that we could have won it.”

“Agreed,” said Lyn as she and a slightly red-eyed RI sat down next to him.

“We could,” said Dia as she finished a piece of wheat cracker. “The original mission parameters don’t have the TIE Advanced in it. If it was just us, we could have soundly won that mission.”

“Except,” said Miran, cutting in, “the Empire still has a variety of tools at their disposal. While it may not be part of the original mission, it could still happen.”

“Exactly,” said Andrew, piercing a piece of fruit and shoving it into his mouth. “Captain Tann and I have flown several missions where we’ve been ambushed, sometimes by overwhelming odds. We have to expect the unexpected.”

“But how do we plan for that?” asked Grin sitting at the end of the table.

“We can’t,” said Dia. The others stared at her, chewing their food. “But we can start by getting to know one another. This is the third day together, and we don’t really know one another, do we?”

The others exchanged glances and shook their heads.

“I’m Captain Dia Tann,” she began, “former XO of Blue Squadron, and currently on assignment with General Syndulla’s Meteor and Hail Squadrons. I applied to Rogue to be one of the best,” she said, placing an arm around Andrew’s shoulders, “and to be closer to my best friend and snugglebear.” Taking her fork in her hand, she turned it and pointed it to everyone present. “And he’s exclusively mine. You can’t have him,” she finished, locking eyes with Lyn.

A round of giggles and snorts erupted from several of the pilots at the table.

“Thank you, dear,” said Andrew, his face turning a shade of red. “I’m Major Andrew Dobson, former OC of Blue Squadron, and current XO of Buccaneer Squadron. I applied for Rogue to be one of the best, and to be with my loving partner in crime, Dia.”

One by one, they went around the table and formally introduced themselves. Miran was a male pilot from Ord Mantell who had flown with Echo Squadron, while Lyn was a native of a small colony on a remote world somewhere in the Outer Rim and had spent time with Siracco Squadron. Ri Mellira was a native of her homeworld Shili, and was a new recruit just prior to Endor who had somehow earned a name for herself as part of Star Squadron. Shiz was a native of Mirilian, and had been a pro-racer for two years before joining the Alliance under Sunburst Squadron. The other two human pilots were Nirobi, a female X-wing jockey from Naboo under Hush Squadron, and Nezrine, who had joined the Alliance under Diamond Squadron, from Dinwa Prime. The last to go was Grinmigu “Grin” Bek, who had experience and several decorations during his time with Ice Squadron.

“And that hulking troll,” drawled Lyn as she made a thumbing motion over towards Grixx, who was sitting at another table, “is Grixx. Part of Dynamo Squadron.”

“What does Dynamo Squadron do, exactly?” asked Grin.

“I heard,” said Nirobi, “that they were an X-wing Squadron involved in some pretty intense missions before and after the Battle of Endor. Stuck it to the Imperials real good, but also took heavy losses on multiple occasions.”

“That could explain things,” said Andrew.

“How do you mean?” asked Ri, poking timidly at her food.

“Well,” he began, looking at Grixx, who was keeping to himself and angrily eating his food. “If he’s been in the squadron for some time, and they’ve lost pilots regularly, that affects you. You make friends, then lose them. You make some more, then lose them, too. After a while, you become jaded and protective. You stop making friends out of fear of losing them. You stick with what works for you in order to make sure that you survive -- because if you survive, chances are others will if they do what you say.”

“That makes sense,” said Lyn after a few seconds. “And could explain why he’s so angry. He isn’t mad at us individually; he’s mad that we’re not doing what he wants so we survive.”

A few of the others nodded in agreement.

“Should we invite him over?” asked Miran.

“Mmm, not yet,” chimed in Dia.

As Andrew continued to eat his meal, he couldn’t help but observe Lyn turning to size up Grixx some more, a look of sympathy on her face. Given her personality, he hoped she wouldn’t do anything rash.

***

Stepping out of the shower unit half an hour later, Andrew toweled himself dry and dressed himself in fresh garments and his second flight suit. He had sent his first one to the cleaners in hopes of getting the sweat smell out of it.

As he exited the bathing area, he walked down the hall and ran possible battle simulations through his mind, as well as how they could possibly change. There were too many variables to account for, of course, but even the small differences of using heavy rockets over torpedoes, or facing a Frigate versus a Star Destroyer could make all the difference.

When he entered the hangar, it was a bustle of activity. Several ships from Corsair and Spectre Squadron were taking off to go on some sort of mission, while the work crews continued to prep or repair other starfighters or pieces of equipment.

“Your next task,” said Jalb as Andrew stepped in line with everyone else, “will be to complete a scavenger hunt. You’ll have one hour to find the following items,” he said as Thanatos handed each pilot a data pad. “You must complete this activity in teams. Critically sensitive areas like the Bridge, Medical Bay, and Weapon Systems are off-limits. Other areas are not. The team with the most items at the end of the hour gets an extra half hour of free time in the Lounge this evening.”

The pilots exchanged glances with one another before Jalb ushered them forward.

“Okay, what’s the plan?” asked Dia as she, Shiz, and Ri crowded around Andrew.

“We can cover more ground if we divide up our tasks and the list,” said Andrew. “I know the ship reasonably well, and you shouldn’t have much problem navigating around if you keep in mind the Vigilant is similar to a Liberty-class ship, only bigger. And with a few different decks. Shiz, with me. Dia with Ri. You take the upper decks,” he said, glancing at the first several items in the list, “while Shiz and I take the lower ones. Keep your comms ready, and report when you’ve found an item.”

They nodded in agreement, and went their separate ways, jogging quickly from one room or station to the next. Some items were easy to find, while others were harder or, for the time being, nonexistent. After twenty-five minutes, they had most of the items on the list.

“We found the carbon scoring scraper,” said Dia through Andrew’s personal comm.

“And we found the red bandanna,” he replied. “That makes twelve items.”

“Three more to go,” said Shiz, placing the hydrospanner into a bag that they had retrieved. “What’s left?”

Andrew looked at the list.

“A restraining bolt remover. Some droid polish. And … a half-finished box of chocolates?”

“The restraining bolt remover and droid polish should be easy,” Ri piped up, “if one of us wants to go to maintenance.”

“Agreed,” said Dia. “We’ll go there. But where would we ever find a box of half-finished chocolates?”

A sinking feeling began to form in Andrew’s gut.

“I have an idea,” he said, looking at Shiz. “But we’re going to need to trade places. I’m sending Shiz to work with Ri. Where’s Bee-Dee?”

“But he’s in my quarters,” said Dia.

“Good. I’ll meet you there shortly.”

***

Ten minutes later, Andrew and Dia stood outside of one of the doorways to a senior officer’s quarters. The nametag read would have read LTCOL REYNOLDS had it not had several other nicknames scribbled on pieces of tape above and below it.

“You’re kidding,” she said, her jaw dropping.

“I wish I were,” he said with a sigh.

BD-B2 stood on Dia’s left shoulder, glancing quizzically back and forth between them.

“It’s a felony to break into a senior officer’s quarters. How are we going to avoid getting reprimanded for something like this?”

“Every droid operating on this ship is registered and catalogued. If, say, an artoo unit or even someone like Syntax tries to open the door, the computer systems will log that access and identify which droid did it. An unregistered droid, however,” he said, turning to look at BD-B2, “might stand a better chance of not being identified. At least, not immediately.”

Dia eyed him cautiously. “What do you think our chances are of being successful?”

“I’d say about fifty-fifty,” he said looking at her. “Though realistically, this probably won’t end well.”

“I agree,” she said, looking forward. “Let’s get this over with then. Bee-Dee, work your magic and open the door.”

The little droid hopped down her outreached arm and stuck one of his mechanical feet into the droid console. The cylindrically cog-shaped outlet whirred and clicked several times before the door hissed open a few seconds later.

Resting almost immediately beside Jalb’s bunk was his astromech unit. They both caught their breaths in alarm, waiting for the droid to activate itself at the entry into the room. Oddly enough, it didn’t.

“Is that thing on?” Dia asked.

Not one for wasting time or taking risks, BD-B2 scurried into the room.

“Doesn’t seem to be,” said Andrew as he waved his hand in the general direction of the droid. “Okay,” he said, letting out a breath. “Let’s get this over with.”

As Dia joined him, they entered into Jalb’s quarters. The objects in there were clean and orderly. A few pieces of personal memorabilia were placed around the room, giving it a homey feeling. He could also see several clothing items hanging in the closet area, ranging from shirts to flight suits to uniforms for special occasions.

On top of a small dresser on the far side of the room sat several data pads, plus the box of chocolates that Jalb had taken from Andrew on the first day.

“Here it is,” he said, walking over and lifting it up. Opening it, it was indeed half-full, with several empty wrappers scattered amongst ones full of different varieties of chocolate.

“That’s my box of chocolate,” she said sourly. “The nerve of him.”

“Let’s not worry about that now,” said Andrew. “We should go.”

“Just a second,” she said, reaching her hand in and plucking a chocolate out of the box. Popping it in her mouth, she savoured the taste of the sweet piece of candy. “Okay,” she said, her mouth full. “Now we can go.”

Andrew shook his head in disbelief and closed the lid of the box of chocolates, then exited the room. B2 took a few seconds to lock the door behind them, and they made their way to the hangar to meet up with Shiz and Ri.

“You should switch him off and put him away,” said Andrew as they walked briskly down the empty corridor.

“Where?” she asked. “He’s a bit too big to fit into my flight suit.” She looked down to exchange glances with BD-B2, who was in turn looking up at her quizzically, his head tilted. “Go back to the quarters and wait there. No tricks, no funny business,” she said. “Got it?”

The droid gave a half-hearted sigh before giving a quick series of beeps that indicated he would behave, then scurried off down the corridor.

***

By the time they made their way back to the hangar, they had a little more than five minutes to spare. The final few groups rejoined them as the time began to run out.

Jalb and Thanatos were waiting patiently, logging the time that each group returned, as well as taking stock of how many items they had successfully found. Each group had found most of the common items, though others were missing certain items that others had. Only Andrew and Dia’s group had found all fifteen items.

As Jalb surveyed the items that they had found, he bent over and picked up the box of chocolates. “Well, well,” he said, apparently amused at the find. “I’d certainly like to know how you found these. They were the most difficult item to find.”

Andrew and Dia remained stone-faced as Jalb eyed them carefully.

“Your next task,” said Thanatos as ten artoo units wheeled up to them, “will be to use the items you found to clean these artoo units, and replace their restraining bolts. This batch came on the same day you all arrived. You have ten minutes -- go.”

The teams grabbed their items from the floor and began to select artoo units to maintain and clean. Andrew chose an artoo unit that had a white body with sky-blue markings, while Dia chose one that was yellow. Shiz and Ri picked ones that were black and red respectively.

The droids were filthy, and when the bandannas and rags they were using became too dirty, they were forced to use the sleeves of their flight suits. Jalb sat in a chair that one of the deck crewmen had brought over and looked as if he was enjoying himself while watching them and eating the chocolates one by one.

When they were done, Andrew’s droid gave a series of beeps and whoops, and spun around in a circle.

“I think it likes you,” Dia said as the droid nudged Andrew. Her droid, on the other hand, was being particularly stubborn. She had to use the restraining bolt to stop the little droid from wandering away. He could tell she hated doing so, but a droid on the loose was bound to cause trouble.

“I dunno,” he said, eying the yellow-domed droid. “Looks like you two are like peas in a pod.”

“Oh, ha-ha,” she said as she finished polishing the droid’s dome.

“And that’s ten!” called Thanatos. “Step away from your droids.”

As Thanatos walked around to inspect them, he removed a glove from one of his hands and ran a finger over the droids, then moved around to inspect them. “I see that Major Dobson’s team has done an excellent job with their droids. Their flight suits, on the other hand, appear to need some attention. As for the rest of you, you’re going to get some fresh rags and scrub your droids again. A pilot who keeps their droid in tip-top shape is bound to have a better survival rate than those who don’t. And I do expect these droids to be in tip-top shape. Now, get to it!”

***

The rest of the day was another series of physical exercises and simulations. They had managed to successfully defend the Liberty on their first try on the hardest difficulty, and had great success with the Dargon and Drekker missions. The ISD Dominance mission was a breeze. Their luck changed, however, when they were given some of the new custom-made missions with the real members of Rogue Squadron as opponents. Some they did well on, others they did not. Still, it was evident that their teamwork was getting better. Though it still didn’t change the fact that Grixx still had a bone to pick with some of them -- and it showed during some of the missions.

“I could have had you covered if you had banked right like I told you,” he said to Grin as he slammed his mug down on the table in the Mess Hall.

“And had you covered me sooner like I asked,” Nezrine said as she finished her drink and tipped her mug towards him, “I could have taken that shot against the transport. But instead, I got shot down.”

“Not my fault you don’t know how to maneuver,” Grixx growled.

“Alright, you three,” drawled Lyn as she gave Grixx a quick jab with her elbow, “that’s enough.”

To Andrew’s surprise, he only gave Lyn a quick glance, turning back to finish his meal. He couldn’t quite place his finger on it, but since they had begun working together earlier, they almost seemed … friendly.

If it works, it works, he thought to himself.

“Lieutenant Colonel in the Mess Hall,” called Thanatos as he and Jalb entered the room again. The pilots whipped to attention at the same time, and gave Jalb a salute. Andrew took notice that Jalb’s astromech unit was with him this time.

“At ease, pilots,” he said casually, placing his hands behind his back. “Sit down.”

As the pilots sat down, he surveyed each of them carefully.

“I have to say, I’ve been impressed with your progress today. You’re starting to think and act like a team. This will be critical in the coming days, however, as some of you will be cut while others will move on. I expect your best efforts tomorrow. In the meantime,” he said, “since Major Dobson’s team won the challenge earlier this morning, they will follow me.”

The pilots rose and followed Jalb, though it wasn’t towards the Lounge. When they reached their destination, their mouths dropped open.

Latrine read the word above the door.

“What about the Lounge time?” Shiz asked.

“Oh, you’ll still get it,” began Jalb, a small smile on his face, “after you complete this task. As I’m sure you understand, breaking into a room -- especially a Lieutenant Colonel’s room -- is a felony. How you did so is quite ingenious,” he said. He motioned for his astromech to come forward. As it rolled around Jalb, a holographic image was displayed of BD-B2, Andrew, and Dia entering his quarters. “But I can’t permit it. As such, you’ll be on latrine duty this evening. And I want those latrines clean enough so that someone could eat off of them.”

“But, sir,” protested Dia, “you can’t punish Shiz and Ri for this. Andrew and I were the only ones who entered your cabin.”

“Dia,” Andrew said slowly. “Shut. Up.”

“Regardless,” continued Jalb matter-of-factly, “the choices you make as Rogues can affect all Rogues. As Rogues, you will fly together and potentially die together. There is no ‘I’ in team. Except when I tell you to do a thorough job. Get to it, team,” he finished as several pilots from Buccaneer Squadron exited the latrine together and made their way down the corridor. “It looks like Buccaneer Squadron has once more made another successful bombing run.”